The Supreme Court recently ruled on a case out of Arizona involving two convicted murderers who had attempted to appeal their death sentences on the grounds of ineffective counsel, but the court ultimately ruled against them and limited the ability of death row inmates to pursue such claims.
The ruling allows Arizona to proceed with execution plans against the convicts, even though one of them, Barry Lee Jones, may actually be innocent and wrongfully convicted, the Arizona Republic reported.
That decision from the high court overturned rulings from lower courts that tossed out Jones’ conviction and death sentence on the basis that, as he had asserted, his initial trial and post-conviction attorneys had failed to put forward evidence that seemed to strongly suggest he had not committed the murder he was convicted of.
The proper procedure for submitting evidence of ineffective counsel
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion for the 6-3 split court that all but ended Jones’ hopes to avoid execution and see his conviction overturned by the introduction of new evidence that appeared to, if not exonerate him, at least cast doubt on the prosecution’s case that Jones had raped and murdered his then-girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter.
In essence, Thomas determined that new evidence in support of ineffective counsel claims is not automatically deserving of a hearing in federal court if that evidence had not first been submitted in state court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a dissent against what she called a “perverse” and “illogical” majority opinion, and wrote, “The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.”
She further decried a sort of Catch-22 situation created by the court in which inmates are held responsible for the failures of their ineffective attorneys to effectively follow proper procedures for introducing evidence in state court in support of an ineffective counsel claim.
Evidence suggests Jones may be innocent
Unfortunately, at least in the case of Jones, Justice Sotomayor may be correct, according to an in-depth review of the convicted murderer’s entire case by the left-leaning media outlet The Intercept.
Jones had been convicted in 1995 and sentenced to death for raping and murdering the four-year-old daughter of his girlfriend at that time, who had died from internal injuries and infections that stemmed from physical abuse allegedly committed by Jones.
Yet, after Jones had been convicted and sentenced, expert analysis and additional evidence not submitted by earlier attorneys seemed to cast doubt on whether Jones, timeline-wise, had actually been the one to cause the fatal injuries to the young girl, and in 2018, a federal district court judge agreed and vacated the conviction.
That district court ruling was further upheld twice by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but as The Intercept noted, all of that is now “moot” in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentially disallowed and tossed out the district court’s evidentiary hearing in support of the ineffective counsel claim.
Thus, despite there being known exonerating evidence on the record, albeit added improperly and too late in the view of the high court’s majority, Arizona can now proceed with its planned execution of a man who may very well be innocent of the charges he was initially convicted of on a less than fulsome evidentiary record.