The United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones closed the federal courthouse doors to evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel that was not first presented to the state courts. This decision will leave thousands of people in the nightmarish position of having no court to hear their very real claims of innocence. As Justice Sotomayor observed, “The decision is perverse. It is illogical … It is hard to imagine a more ‘extreme malfunctio[n]’ … than the prejudicial deprivation of a right that constitutes the ‘foundation for our adversary system.’”
In this ruling, the Supreme Court set aside the judgments of four federal judges – on both the federal district court and the federal court of appeals – that Barry Jones was represented by a trial attorney whose failure to investigate and challenge the prosecution evidence caused Mr. Jones to be wrongfully convicted. Because the Supreme Court has held that the federal courts cannot consider this evidence of innocence, Mr. Jones now faces execution. This case is hardly an anomaly. Since 1989, more than 3,000 people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in the United States – including 186 who were condemned to death. Bad lawyering, including poor preparation, inadequate investigation and intrinsic bias, is a leading cause of these injustices.
The vast majority of criminal cases in the United States are handled by state public defenders. Unfortunately, our public defender systems are chronically underfunded, poorly paid and overloaded with cases. Because the Court’s emphasis on finality blinks this reality, it exacerbates the intolerable risk of innocent people languishing in prison and even being executed. It is therefore now incumbent upon the states to ensure that people charged with crimes have qualified and resourced counsel and there is a meaningful opportunity to litigate claims of trial counsel ineffectiveness.
There is no doubt that by stripping back people’s constitutional rights to effective counsel, this decision increases the risks of wrongful conviction and sentencing innocent people to death.