Case could reveal Supreme Court’s philosophy on criminal justice
For good or bad, former President Donald J. Trump arguably did more to reshape the courts than any president in recent memory. In four years, he successfully nominated three right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court justices who could prove pivotal. Of the three justices he replaced, one was a swing vote and the other a member of the liberal wing of the court. Now, Republican appointees dominate the U.S. Supreme Court by a margin of six to three.
Roughly one year after President Joe Biden succeeded Trump, it still isn’t clear how this reformed court will rule on a myriad of issues, including criminal justice. Yet, if you want to try to read the tea leaves, pay close attention to Shinn v. Jones and Ramirez—a largely unknown case with serious ramifications.
The case revolves around Barry Jones and David Ramirez who were sentenced to death in Arizona for two distinctly unrelated crimes. They feel their cases merit reconsideration because “their trial lawyers badly mishandled their cases, landing them on death row,” according to the New York Times.
Attorneys often parrot such claims—sometimes insincerely—but Shinn v. Jones and Ramirez seems different. In Jones’ case, evidence exists that calls into question his guilty verdict, and there’s mitigating evidence suggesting that Ramirez suffers from an intellectual disability and endured childhood abuse. Generally, that’s the sort of evidence that ensures someone receives a sentence other than death.
The problem is—Jones’ and Ramirez’s current counsel argues—their trial and post-conviction attorneys did not introduce this evidence in court, which seems like exceptionally bad lawyering. All of this is important because everyone in the United States has a right to effective counsel, but not everyone receives it—at least at first.
There are plenty of examples of defense attorneys showing up to trial drunk, sleeping through proceedings, or simply not following up on obvious leads that might help their clients. Unfortunately, ineffective counsel can ruin lives—leading to wrongful convictions, incarceration and possibly even executions. Given this and citing a 2012 case that permits individuals to raise challenges of ineffectiveness of state counsel in federal court, Jones’ and Ramirez’s new lawyers have naturally asked federal courts to review these cases.
In the course of their appeals, federal courts overturned Jones’ conviction and ordered a new hearing for Ramirez, but the State of Arizona is doggedly opposed to these decisions. Pointing to an obscure provision in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Arizona challenged the federal rulings. Lawyers for the State of Arizona assert that allegations of ineffectiveness of counsel cannot be considered in federal habeas corpus claims—usually the backstop of the appeals process—unless such supporting evidence was previously introduced in state court. This is an absurd line of thinking that is based on an interpretation of the AEDPA that no appeals court has adopted.
Imagine being wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. You have clear-cut evidence of your innocence, but unfortunately, your post-conviction counsel failed to raise such evidence in state courts. Arizona is essentially arguing that if your trial counsel and post-conviction counsel failed to provide evidence pointing to their own ineffectiveness in state courts, then you should not ever be permitted to raise such claims in federal court and receive a retrial to prove your innocence.
To say that this is ridiculous is a gross understatement, and the effects of such an interpretation could be dire. Federal courts are one of the last safeguards against unfair trials, and this case will determine whether people—convicted of capital and noncapital crimes—can raise claims of ineffective counsel in federal court even if the supporting evidence wasn’t introduced in state courts.
While I cannot say for certain whether Barry Jones is innocent or whether Ramirez’s history merits a lighter sentence, their current attorneys have persuasively argued a critical point: Jones’ and Ramirez’s original counsel didn’t serve them well, and they both deserved fair trials with effective counsel who should have presented appropriate evidence in state court.
Soon enough, Americans will learn how the high court will rule. If the justices side with Jones and Ramirez, then that may intimate a bright future for the court that Trump helped reshape. It could demonstrate the justices’ profound respect for individual rights and liberties.
However, if they rule in favor of Arizona, then Jones and Ramirez will likely be executed—based in large part on an incomplete set of evidence. Such a decision may portend that darker days lie ahead. Rather than protecting individuals’ rights, that kind of ruling would punish people for their attorneys’ shortcomings and could safeguard the reputation of bad lawyers.
Image credit: lazyllama