Justices Weigh Changes to Death-Row Appeals Process

WASHINGTON (CN) – Sorting out the details that led to one man’s death sentence, the Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether man’s attorney fouled up when he failed to raise objections over misleading jury instructions.

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.

Before his petition made it to the Supreme Court Monday, Davila held that though Stevenson and her grandchild were killed, he should not have been convicted of capital murder.

Saying that more evidence by the state was required to prove his intention to kill multiple people, Davila said misdirection from a trial judge in response to a jury question was ultimately what violated his due-process rights.

After appealing directly, Davila filed a habeas petition in state court, followed by a federal petition. In the state petition, Davila’s attorney failed to mention the trial attorney’s ineffectiveness in not objecting to the judge’s misdirection.

Once the federal habeas petition was filed, the state said a ruling was out of its jurisdiction and tossed the petition. The Fifth Circuit agreed and rejected Davila’s petition, citing Martinez v. Ryan.

In Martinez, the court found ineffective performance by state habeas counsel qualifies as good cause to excuse procedural default where a defendant’s trial counsel was also considered ineffective.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was apprehensive Monday when Seth Kretzer, Davila’s attorney, relied on Martinez as grounds for his client’s petition.

“What concerns me about your position is that it seems to blast an enormous hole in the doctrine of procedural default. Unlike Martinez and unlike Trevino, it seems to me, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, that if we agree with your position, then anything that an attorney in federal habeas can examine the trial record, and if that attorney finds anything that seems to be an error, it can be raised in federal habeas, even if there was no objection at the time of trial, it wasn’t raised on direct appeal, it wasn’t raised on a state collateral,” Alito said.

For him, this “enormous hole” could open the courts to a flood of costly and time-consuming complaints with negative effects rippling throughout the justice system.

“The argument in federal habeas would be there was cause because counsel was ineffective at the [state collateral proceeding], and this counsel was ineffective at the state collateral proceeding because there was ineffective assistance on the direct appeal,” Alito explained. “And then counsel on direct appeal was ineffective because there was an error at trial. So the federal habeas court has to make all those determinations.”

Like Alito, Justice Stephen Breyer was hesitant and said he would consider empirical evidence showing the increase or decrease of burden on the courts since the Martinez ruling.

Justice Elena Kagan later revisited the impact of Martinez with Scott Keller, the respondent’s attorney and Solicitor General of Texas.

Martinez was about having some court evaluate the effective assistance of trial claim, and this is about having some court evaluate the ineffective assistance of the appellate counsel claim… [In Martinez,] it was ineffective assistance of trial counsel to ensure that the trial process was fair,” Kagan said. “Here, it’s having some court litigate the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel in order to ensure that appellate counsel is fair.”

Keller responded with an amendment to Kagan’s point.

“At root here, the issue is a supplemental jury instruction which was not preserved, which was correct, and there would have been no prejudice from in any event. And this is the type of case the court should be worried about,” Keller said. “There are going to be these state law objections of something that came up at trial, although this is an odd posture because it was not preserved in fact, but that would be the case the court would have to be worrying about. And then we’re going to be here twice over that claim being defaulted, arguing about not necessarily [whether] appellate counsel makes this decision or that decision. It’s going to collapse into an underlying review of what happened.”

And that would apply for all errors at trial on federal habeas, which, Keller added, is “something this court has long avoided, to undo the judgments issued by state courts, particularly when they are doubly defaulted claims that were, in fact, considered by at least one court before.”

The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the coming months.


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