Supremes Agree Texas Inmate Should Have Appeal Heard

Extends 2012 ruling on ineffective assistance of counsel

Supremes Agree Texas Inmate Should Have Appeal Heard

A 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Texas death row inmate Carlos Trevino may raise for the first time in his federal appeal a claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective in not investigating and presenting mitigating evidence at trial that may have spared his life.

The Court of Criminal Appeals and the federal district and appeals courts previously ruled that Trevino forfeited that claim by not raising it in his state habeas appeal; Trevino argues that the appellate lawyer was also ineffective for not discovering and raising the issue that his trial attorney's performance was deficient.

The ruling, penned by Justice Stephen Breyer, makes applicable to Texas a 2012 ruling in an unrelated case from Arizona. In that case, the court concluded that an inmate could revive in federal court a state-court defaulted claim of ineffective assistance of counsel if there was no meaningful way to previously raise the issue.

In arguing before the Supremes in February, the state argued that the ruling in that Arizona case – Martinez v. Ryan – was not applicable to Texas because, unlike in Arizona, defendants have an opportunity to first raise ineffective assistance claims on their first, record-based direct appeal.

But because of deadlines and other constraints inherent in the Texas legal scheme, there really becomes no ability to meaningfully raise on direct appeal a claim of ineffective assistance at trial, the court ruled. "This opinion considers whether, as a systematic matter, Texas affords meaningful review of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel," Breyer wrote. "The present capital case illustrates why it does not. The trial court appointed new counsel for Trevino eight days after sentencing. Counsel thus had 22 days to decide whether, and on what grounds, to make a motion for a new trial. She then may have had an additional 45 days to provide support for the motion but without the help of a transcript (which did not become available until much later – seven months after the trial). It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, within that time frame to investigate Trevino's background, determine whether trial counsel had adequately done so, and then develop evidence about additional mitigating background circumstances."

Trevino was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1996 rape and murder with three accomplices of 15-year-old Linda Salinas in San Antonio. At trial his lawyer called just one witness, an aunt, to offer mitigating evidence about Trevino's troubled background. Later investigation by an appeal attorney readily uncovered compelling mitigating evidence that could have been raised at trial and may have swayed a jury to spare his life – including evidence that Trevino suffered from the ill effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, had repeated head injuries as a child that were untreated, was abused by his mother, and at a very young age abused drugs and alcohol.

In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts opines that the ruling in Trevino's case will open the courts to a "broad swath of cases" with defendants seeking review on claims that would otherwise be procedurally barred. "But even in cases where federal courts ultimately decide that the habeas petitioner cannot establish cause under the new standard, the years of procedural wrangling it takes to reach that decision will themselves undermine the finality of sentences necessary to effective criminal justice," he wrote.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Courts, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, capital punishment, ineffective assistance of counsel, Carlos Trevino, U.S. Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer

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