March 01, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Three Cases that Could Affect Death Row Prisoners

In January and February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases concerning the provision of counsel in death penalty cases and in a third case that has the potential to affect death row prisoners across the country. In Trevino v. Thaler and Boyer v. Louisiana, the Court is considering questions about the appointment and effectiveness of death penalty counsel. In the third case, McQuiggin v. Perkins, the Court is considering whether there is an "actual innocence" exception to the requirement that a habeas petitioner show an extraordinary circumstance that "prevented timely filing" of a habeas petition.

On February 25, 2013, the Court heard arguments in Trevino v. Thaler to decide whether the decision last term in Martinez v. Ryan extends to death-sentenced prisoners in Texas. In Martinez, the Court held that where claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel must be raised for the first time in state post-conviction proceedings and the defendant does not receive the effective assistance of counsel in raising those claims, federal habeas courts are allowed to overlook procedural bars and review claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on the merits. In Texas, there is no explicit prohibition on raising claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel prior to state post-conviction proceedings, although the practice is strongly discouraged. In Mr. Trevino's case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Martinez did not apply because his direct appeal counsel theoretically could have raised ineffective-assistance claims prior to state post-conviction proceedings. Much of the oral argument centered on a dispute over whether capital defendants can meaningfully challenge the effectiveness of their trial counsel on direct appeal. Death-sentenced prisoners typically must demonstrate what evidence was not presented at trial by presenting extra-record evidence, and in Texas there are numerous practical and procedural obstacles to expanding the factual record during the direct appeal stage of the case. Counsel for Mr. Trevino argued that where it is not practically possible to raise ineffective-assistance claims before post-conviction proceedings, the reasoning underlying the Martinez decision—that every defendant should have one full opportunity to bring an ineffective assistance claim—should apply, and that the holding should therefore be extended to those situations. The Court's decision could limit its holding to Texas or extend the rationale of Martinez to every state in which it is practically difficult to challenge the effectiveness of trial counsel on direct appeal.

In Boyer v. Louisiana, argued on January 14, 2013, the Court is considering whether Louisiana violated a capital defendant’s right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment when it failed to appoint counsel to represent him in a timely manner. The State held Jonathan Boyer on capital charges of armed robbery and murder for five years while he awaited the appointment of qualified defense counsel who could represent him in a capital case, as required by Louisiana law. After his case languished for five years, the State dropped the capital charges and appointed a private attorney working on a contractual basis to represent Mr. Boyer. By the time of his trial, seven years had elapsed since his indictment and key witnesses were no longer available to testify. Mr. Boyer was convicted of second-degree murder and armed robbery and given a life sentence. At the oral argument, the discussion focused heavily on the extent to which the State should be held responsible for failing to adequately fund defense counsel and whether defense counsel should have taken further action in seeking funds and asserting a violation of the client’s right to a speedy trial. The Court briefly discussed the qualifications of capital counsel and notably produced a joke by Justice Clarence Thomas, the first time he had spoken during an oral argument in seven years. Although the precise nature of the joke was not recorded, it appeared to be a joke about his alma mater, Yale Law School.

In McQuiggin v. Perkins, also argued on February 25, 2013, the Court considered whether the 1996 federal law restricting habeas corpus rights, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, contains an "actual innocence" exception for its requirement that habeas petitioners file their petitions within the law's strict statute of limitations. In recent years, the Court has issued decisions allowing for courts to hear untimely petitions in some circumstances. In 2009, the Court held in Holland v. Florida that a petitioner is entitled to equitable tolling where he can show he pursued his rights diligently and some extraordinary circumstance stood in the way of his ability to file in a timely manner. Similarly, in last year's decision in Maples v. Thomas, the Court held that in circumstances where a death row prisoner has been "abandoned" by his attorneys, the prisoner's procedural default may be excused. Mr. Perkins was convicted of first-degree murder for a fatal stabbing and sentenced to life in prison in 1993, based largely on the testimony of one eyewitness, whom Mr. Perkins alleges is the actual killer. With the help of his sister and without attorney assistance, Mr. Perkins procured affidavits from three individuals that undermine the testimony against him and appear to implicate the eyewitness. However, this evidence was submitted in a habeas petition that was filed well outside of the one-year statute of limitations. The Court is currently considering whether procedural default of this claim should be excused in order to prevent a miscarriage of justice.