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October 20, 2021

In Arizona capital cases, ABA seeks to affirm pathway for ineffective assistance of counsel claims

CHICAGO, Sept. 20, 2021 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief today with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to adhere to existing precedent and affirm a federal appeals court ruling permitting consideration of new evidence supporting an ineffective trial counsel claim where state post-conviction counsel was also ineffective.

The Supreme Court, in the 2012 case Martinez v. Ryan, recognized that, to protect the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, a federal court may review a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel not previously presented in state post-conviction proceedings. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which was enacted in 1996 to expedite capital cases, federal courts are usually prohibited from hearing claims that are not first heard in state court.

The law has faced criticism for frustrating justice because courts must refuse to hear, on procedural grounds, claims that might otherwise result in reversal of a conviction or death sentence. The state of Arizona contends that even when the prisoner has the misfortune of being appointed two rounds of ineffective lawyers and qualifies for the Martinez exception to the general rule of the AEDPA, federal courts still should not be allowed to hear new evidence, effectively blocking prisoners from obtaining relief from unconstitutional convictions and sentences.

In each of the now-consolidated cases, the failure to present mitigating or exculpatory evidence at trial was not raised in post-conviction proceedings at the state level but was presented for the first time when the case reached the federal courts. Two unanimous three-judge panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit separately sided with the two defendants, holding that, where a prisoner can meet the rigorous requirements of Martinez, federal courts must allow for introduction of new evidence to ensure a single meaningful opportunity to present claims of trial counsel ineffectiveness.

The ABA does not take a stand on capital punishment other than to say it should be meted out fairly and with constitutional safeguards. “Without the narrow pathway that Martinez provides for state prisoners to avoid procedural default,” the brief said, “prisoners seeking relief in federal courts on claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel who also received ineffective representation in state post-conviction proceedings would lack even a single opportunity to meaningfully vindicate the bedrock right to effective representation at trial.”

Oral argument for Shinn v. Ramirez is scheduled for Nov. 1. The ABA brief in the case is here. The law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP filed the brief pro bono on behalf of the ABA.

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