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Supreme court guts lifeline for prisoners who claim wrongful convictions

The decision bars federal courts from hearing new evidence not presented in a state court as a result of ineffective legal counsel

The US supreme court on Monday gutted constitutional protections that for years have provided a federal lifeline to innocent prisoners facing prolonged incarceration or even execution following wrongful convictions stemming from poor legal counsel given to them by the states.

In a 6 to 3 ruling, the newly-dominant right-wing majority of the nation’s highest court barred federal courts from hearing new evidence that was not previously presented in a state court as a result of the defendant’s ineffective legal representation. The decision means that prisoners will no longer have recourse to federal judges even when they claim they were wrongfully convicted because their lawyers failed to conduct their cases properly. The decision eviscerated the supreme court’s own precedent in a move that the three liberal justices called “illogical” and “perverse”. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor slammed the decision, warning it would leave “many people … to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel”.

The ruling in Shinn v Ramirez was written by Clarence Thomas, the right-wing justice who has come to the fore as a result of the court’s sharp shift to the right following Donald Trump’s three appointments. He was supported by all five other conservative justices, including the chief justice, John Roberts.

In his opinion, Thomas presented the case as one of the states’ rights. He said that federal courts should not be allowed to override the states’ “core power to enforce criminal law”.

That continues to be the case, the majority ruled, even where defendants are given bad legal advice by counsel provided for them by the very same states that are condemning them to long prison sentences or even execution.

In the future, they will have no recourse to a federal court to try and reverse their wrongful conviction.

The case before the justices arose after state officials in Arizona petitioned the supreme court to prevent two of the state’s death row inmates – one with a strong case of proclaimed innocence, the other with a history of family abuse – from seeking relief in federal court from capital punishment.

The state argued that the condemned men should not be allowed to present new evidence to a federal judge when they had failed to do so previously in state court. Lawyers for the condemned men pointed out that they had only failed to present the evidence in state court because the legal counsel they had been assigned by the state was woefully inadequate.

If they were blocked from petitioning a federal court, the men would in effect be sent to the death chamber simply because incompetent lawyers had missed a filing deadline or failed to uncover a glaring truth.

Monday’s majority ruling prompted an outpouring of angry and anguished criticism from innocence rights groups and death penalty experts.

The Innocence Project said that overturning wrongful convictions was never easy, and that “today’s supreme court decision makes it that much harder to secure justice for wrongly-convicted people”. Thomas’s opinion also overturns previous supreme court rulings, in an abrogation of the court’s own adherence to the principle of stare decisis – that is, being faithful to precedent. In 2012 the supreme court ruled in Martinez v Ryan that prisoners could have access to federal court in cases where they had suffered from ineffective legal counsel in the state courts.

“The supreme court seems hell-bent on disrespecting precedent and rolling back rights,” said Janai Nelson, president of LDF, America’s first civil and human rights law organization.

In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor decried the ruling. “This decision is perverse. It is illogical,” she wrote. Sotomayor argued that under the court’s own precedent, prisoners cannot be held accountable – and effectively punished – for “their attorneys’ failures to present claims in state court”.

She concluded that as a result of the majority decision from the nine-member supreme court bench, the Sixth Amendment to the US constitution’s guarantee that criminal defendants have the right to effective legal counsel at trial “is now an empty one”.

In the future, she said, prisoners who have had poor legal assistance would have no relief. “The responsibility for this devastating outcome lies not with Congress, but with this court.”



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