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SCOTUS Hears Prison Case Which Could Impact Death Row Inmates Ability to Appeal Sentencing

SCOTUS Hears Prison Case Which Could Impact Death Row Inmates Ability to Appeal Sentencing

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments from two Arizona death row inmates on Wednesday in a case that could have devastating consequences for prisoners attempting to prove their innocence before they are sent to the execution chamber.

State officials in Arizona are asking the nation’s highest court to bar the two condemned prisoners – one with a strong claim of innocence, the other with a history of intellectual disability and family abuse – from presenting evidence in federal court that could save their lives. The Arizona officials argue the prisoners should not be allowed to put forward the evidence because they failed to do so in state court at an earlier stage in their legal proceedings.

The Roberts Court, April 23, 2021 [Photograph by Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States]
Almost ten years ago, SCOTUS ruled in Martinez v Ryan that prisoners should be allowed to present claims in federal court that they had ineffective lawyers at trial and post-conviction stages of their cases. That precedent has never been questioned by an appeals court or by any justice on the Supreme Court.

Death penalty experts warn that if the country’s highest court sides with Arizona it would erect new hurdles that could impede all convicted prisoners, including death row inmates, from seeking redress in federal court for possible miscarriages of justice. At its most stark, individuals who should have been exonerated or who should never have been put on death row because of their intellectual disabilities would face increased risk of being unjustly executed. The Arizona death penalty case carries similar dangers for the standing of the court and with it the state of American democracy. Were the conservative justices to rule in Arizona’s favor they would be backing a radical partisan move by Republican state lawmakers.

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But the prisoners argued that they’d had no chance of seeking a new trial at the state level because the lawyers they were assigned by Arizona were so woefully incompetent at trial that they failed to uncover crucial evidence that could have spared them from death row. After conviction, they were assigned a second set of lawyers who were equally ineffective and who as a result made no challenge to the gross mishandling of their defense at trial.

Almost 3,000 prisoners have been exonerated in the US since 1989, including 186 innocent people who were condemned to death. Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project, estimates that between them they spent more than 25,000 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

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