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SCOTUS: State Prisoners Have No Constitutional Right to Present New Evidence in Federal Court

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

In case you missed it: On May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state prisoners do not have a constitutional right to present new evidence in federal court to prove their trial counsel was ineffective.

The court reviewed the cases of two Arizona prisoners, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Jones. Both men were convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death in state court. After the Arizona Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief, both men filed federal claims arguing their state trial lawyers were ineffective.

Ramirez claimed his state attorneys failed to investigate evidence of an intellectual disability that might have led to a lesser sentence. Jones argued the state lawyers in his case filed to investigate exonerating evidence.

But both ran into problems when they tried to present this evidence in their federal habeas corpus proceedings. Since their lawyers failed to investigate, this potential evidence was not part of the state court record. The lower courts split on whether federal habeas statutes and prior Supreme Court precedent allowed them to hear the new evidence.

In Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, the Supreme Court basically says, "You can bring the claim in federal court, but you can't present any evidence to support it."

Previous Cases Open the Door ...

Federal courts use writs of habeas corpus (Latin for "that you have the body") to determine whether a state's detention of a prisoner is constitutional. Once a person exhausts all their options in state court to try and overturn their conviction, they can apply for a writ of habeas corpus under federal law. However, federal courts in these proceedings generally cannot hear any evidence not presented to the state courts. If a state prisoner tries to raise new issues in a federal habeas proceeding, the courts will dismiss them as a "procedural default."

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in Martinez v. Ryan that a state prisoner can bring new ineffective assistance of counsel claims in federal court in one narrow circumstance. If they can show that they only failed to raise the issue in state court because their post-conviction attorney was also ineffective, they can overcome the procedural default.

... And Justice Thomas Slams It

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in Martinez v. Ryan and took the opportunity to steer the court in a new direction by writing the opinion in Shinn. Thomas argues that allowing federal courts to hear new evidence on ineffective assistance of counsel "encourages prisoners to sandbag state courts." And although the Shinn opinion does not overturn Martinez v. Ryan, it certainly hobbles the exception created in 2012.

Federal courts can hear new evidence in a habeas proceeding if it falls under one of two exceptions outlined in the statute:

  • The Supreme Court hands down a new rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively, or
  • There are new facts that could not have been previously discovered

The majority held that post-conviction counsel's failure to develop a state court record does fall under either of these exceptions. They concluded that allowing a federal habeas court to hold an evidentiary hearing of this type intrudes on state sovereignty.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a blistering dissent, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, arguing that the majority "gives short shrift to the egregious breakdowns of the adversarial system that occurred in these cases, breakdowns of the type that federal habeas review exists to correct."

Congress could amend the statute to include an exception related to ineffective assistance of counsel, but we all know Congress struggles to be effective as well. In a statement reacting to the Shinn opinion, the Innocence Project's executive director said, "[t]his decision will leave thousands of people in the nightmarish position of having no court to hear their very real claims of innocence." And for some, it's quite literally a death sentence.

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