WASHINGTON (CN) — Hearing their last argument of the year, the justices of the Supreme Court seemed hesitant Wednesday about the government’s bid to block two Arizona death row inmates from introducing new evidence in their cases.
Robert Loeb, an attorney who represents David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, explained Wednesday that both of his clients were appointed ineffective trial lawyers.
“In arguing the Mr. Jones and Mr. Ramirez should be held at fault here, the state relies on … the general rule that an attorney’s acts are generally to be attributable to a client. But this court has long recognized that the attribution rule is not categorical in nature. Indeed, the state agrees that the failures of counsel are not to be attributed to the applicant when the attorneys' effectiveness is at the Strickland level. And when it occurs, either at a criminal trial or on the direct criminal appeal,” Loeb said, referring to the 1986 case Strickland v. Washington, which held that a defendant’s right to counsel is violated when that counsel performs inadequately.
Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for sexually assaulting and physically abusing a 4-year-old girl, Rachel Gray. But while Arizona said the man had caused injuries that led to her death at the state level, Jones’ federal lawyers later presented medical evidence that the girl had been injured on a different day than the one the prosecution had originally presented, making it impossible for Jones to have inflicted them, as well as disproving some of the prosecutor’s forensic evidence.
Ramirez, meanwhile, was found guilty of stabbing his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter to death. He said during a psychological exam before the hearing that he had had alcohol and cocaine on the night of the murders and admitted to having sex with the daughter that night as well as several others. He now says he was appointed a public defender who improperly presented that he was of average intelligence at trial, instead of intellectually disabled, and failed to bring up his childhood history of neglect and abuse.
According to their brief, while the federal court found that Jones’ trial counsel and his state post-conviction counsel were ineffective for not presenting evidence, a federal district court initially found that Ramirez couldn’t present a counsel-ineffectiveness claim.
Later, however, the Ninth Circuit ruled that both men could present ineffectiveness claims, affirming and reversing the federal court rulings, respectively, in alignment with Martinez v. Ryan, a 2012 Supreme Court decision that allows prisoners to use new evidence to support their ineffective counsel claims in federal court.
A lawyer from Arizona’s attorney general office asked the court to overturn the Ninth Circuit rulings Wednesday.
“There's a faulty assumption that Martinez somehow guarantees the right to have the claim heard in federal habeas and district court. That's wrong even in a state where ineffective assistance of trial counsel is brought in direct appeal,” Brunn Roysden, representing the director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, said Wednesday.
The Supreme Court moved in May 2021 to hear the Arizona prosecutors’ challenge to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. While usually federal habeas corpus law says state prisoners must raise an issue in state court before they can review a claim in federal court, Martinez indicated that state prisoners could challenge the ineffectiveness of their trial counsel if they had been denied the opportunity to do so in state court due to the counsel.
Arizona said in its brief that the appellate court’s ruling can’t stand because because the high court's 2012 decision in Martinez v. Ryan bars the court from considering new evidence when deciding the merits of the ineffective-counsel claims.