For inmates on death row, having a bad lawyer just got deadlier.
In a ruling Monday against a Texas death row inmate who claimed his lawyer failed to argue his case adequately, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts could not review prisoners’ claims that their state appeals lawyers were ineffective, resolving an issue that had split courts across the country.
The decision makes it harder for death row inmates who had poor legal representation to make that part of their appeals, a particular issue for poor inmates who likely have court-appointed lawyers in the early stages of their cases.
“It does perpetuate a system of inequality,” said Sean O’Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law who has argued several capital punishment cases and served as the director of many of the school’s criminal defense law clinics. “It gives the state a reward for giving prisoners incompetent lawyers in state post-conviction…. That’s the net effect of this.”
In 2008, Erick Davila was convicted of fatally shooting a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother. Davila argued that he had meant to shoot a rival gang member — the girl’s father. The fact that he had not meant to kill more than one person should have made him ineligible for a capital murder verdict and the death penalty. But the judge gave the trial jury incorrect instructions about Davila’s eligibility, and they sentenced him to death by lethal injection.
During Davila’s appeal, his lawyer failed to argue that those bad instructions affected Davis’ sentencing. Then, crucially, during Davila’s post-conviction proceedings in state court, a new lawyer didn’t bring up the appeal lawyer’s failure to mention the instructions. With his case now up for a federal appeal, Davila’s latest lawyer argued that because his appeals lawyer was incompetent, the federal court should review the impact of the inaccurate instructions to the jury.
Federal courts, however, typically won’t rule on issues that could have been reviewed at the state level.
“The question is [not] really whether or not Davila had a fair trial,” O’Brien said. “He did not. The question is whether the federal court can remedy that he had an unfair trial.”
The answer to that question, the justices ruled in a 5-4 decision in Davila v. Davis, is no.
“Claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, however, do not pose the same risk that a trial error — of any kind — will escape review altogether,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. (Thanks to a 2011 Supreme Court case, federal courts can already review lawyers’ mistakes at the trial level.) Thomas added that, if the court ruled in Davila’s favor, “Not only would these burdens on the federal courts and our federal system be severe, but the benefit would — as a systemic matter — be small.”
It’s unclear just how many cases will be affected by Monday’s ruling. During oral arguments, lawyers for Texas argued that a ruling in Davila’s favor could unleash a “flood” of cases into federal courts. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed that assessment in a statement celebrating the ruling, saying, “Had the high court ruled otherwise, states and the federal court system would have been burdened with an avalanche of claims facing an infinitesimal chance of success.”
“It’s going to exacerbate the difference between prisoners who have access to good lawyers and those who don’t.”
Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who wrote about the case for the Supreme Court outlet SCOTUSBlog, says this case wasn’t just about the fates of what both he and O’Brien believe will actually be only a small number of prisoners who find themselves in situations like Davila’s. Instead, Vladeck says, the case demonstrates a “lack of doctrine that responds to and accounts for these inequalities” in the criminal justice system — particularly for people facing capital punishment.
“It’s going to further exacerbate the difference between state prisoners who have access to good lawyers for their post-conviction proceedings, and those who don’t,” Vladeck said. “Because the good lawyers will be able to salvage the ineffectiveness of the appellate counsel.”
That difference may be steep. A Harvard Law School study of the 16 counties that imposed the death penalty five or more times between 2010 and 2015 (three were in Texas) found “appalling inadequacies” in the quality of legal defense.
“You’ve got to win the lottery and get three good lawyers in a row,” O’Brien said of the trial, appellate, and post-conviction process. “Even if you do get one good lawyer, the other two lawyers are going to undo the work of that lawyer…. They have a hard time consistently providing competent lawyers at the trial level, especially Texas.”
As of late last year, Texas had executed more people than any other state — including three people who were sentenced to death after their lawyers slept through parts of their trials.
“It’s going to be the occasional case that we’ll see where this case makes a difference between life and death,” O’Brien said of the Supreme Court ruling. “There will be some prisoners who will lose the capital punishment lottery because of this principle.”