(CN) – In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that ineffective assistance by an appellate attorney is not grounds to excuse the procedural default of a claim that a death-row defendant received ineffective assistance at trial.
Erick Daniel Davila, a member of the Bloods gang, was convicted in 2009 for the killing of Annette Stevenson and her five-year-old granddaughter Queshawn Stevenson at a Forth Worth, Texas, birthday party a year earlier.
With a semiautomatic assault rifle, Davila opened fire on guests at the party as they congregated on a porch. Davila confessed to the drive-by shooting, but contended he only meant to hit one unnamed man there. Several adults and other children were shot, but only Stevenson and her granddaughter died.
Davila filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court last year, arguing that the jury in his trial was improperly instructed on intent for capital murder. His attorneys argued he only intended to shoot his rival, not the grandmother and the little girl.
He argued the trial judge gave misleading jury instructions for intent, and his appellate counsel did not raise the charge-error claim. He also says his state habeas counsel did not raise the issue of ineffective appellate counsel.
In a 5-4 decision split along party lines, the Supreme Court rejected Davila’s arguments Monday.
Generally, an attorney’s error does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default, but there is an exception delineated by Martinez v. Ryan that permits ineffective assistance by state habeas counsel to be “cause” to overcome the default of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
“The question in this case is whether we should extend that exception to allow federal courts to consider a different kind of defaulted claim – ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. We decline to do so,” Justice Clarence Thomas said, writing for the court’s majority.
Justice Samuel Alito was particularly concerned at oral arguments that expanding the exception would “blast an enormous hole in the doctrine of procedural default.”
Justice Thomas’ opinion shares this fear.
“Adopting petitioner’s argument could flood the federal courts with defaulted claims of appellate ineffectiveness. For one thing, every prisoner in the country could bring these claims,” he says.
Martinez only applies to ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and only to states that channel claims to ineffective assistance into collateral proceedings.
“An expanded Martinez exception, however, would mean that any defaulted trial error could result in a new trial,” Thomas says.
But given that most habeas cases are denied, “it is likely that the claims heard in federal court because of petitioner’s proposed rule would also be largely meritless,” the opinion continues.
Thomas was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent for the court’s liberal wing, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“Martinez had to do only with the ineffectiveness of trial counsel. But our cases make clear that due process requires a criminal defendant to have effective assistance of appellate counsel as well,” Breyer says. “Indeed, effective trial counsel and appellate counsel are inextricably connected elements of a fair trial.”