U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Texas Death Penalty Case: Trevino v. Thaler

*Updated June 4, 2013*  According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review six Texas death penalty cases – including four  from Harris County – in light of last week’s ruling in Trevino v. Thaler.  One of the cases involves an inmate who was convicted in 1986.  Read more from the Associated Press.

On May 28, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trevino v. Thaler “that a death-row inmate in Texas can make the claim of ineffective counsel for the first time in a federal habeas petition because the rules of Texas procedure made it virtually impossible for him to raise that issue during an appeal in state court” (“Exceptions to Harsh Rules,” New York Times Editorial, May 29, 2013). The case was an extension of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Martinez vs. Ryan, a case from Arizona, that if a state habeas corpus lawyer provides ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to investigate and raise a claim that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, the federal courts in federal habeas proceedings now can consider the claim that trial counsel was ineffective.

Since the Martinez decision in March of last year, the courts applied the ruling to some cases, but not others, rejecting the appeal of Yokamon Hearn, whose first federal proceeding ended in 2003, and allowing his execution to proceed, while granting stays of execution to John Balentine and Anthony Haynes and remanding the cases of Ivan Cantu and Donald Newbury. Some lower courts held that the ruling did not apply to Texas because defendants have multiple opportunities to claim their lawyers failed them.  In October 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments in the case of Texas death row inmate Carlos Trevino in order to determine whether the Martinez ruling applies to inmates in Texas.

In its 5-4 decision, the Court held that “for present purposes, a distinction between 1) a State that denies permission to raise the claim on direct appeal [like Arizona] and 2) a State that grants permission but denies a fair, meaningful opportunity to develop the claim [like Texas] is a distinction without difference.”

Read coverage of the decision here and here, and read the decision itself here.  (All links courtesy of StandDown.org.)

More analysis, including what the decision means “in plain English,” is available from scotusblog.com.