Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez (2022): Being Innocent of a Crime is Not Enough
Social Justice Policy Brief #36 | By: Alexandra Ellis | June 27, 2022
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On May 25, 2022, the United States Supreme Court released the published opinion of Shinn v. Martinez. The 6-3 opinion has ramifications not only for the defendants in the case, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Jones, but for post-conviction relief for wrongfully convicted individuals everywhere. The essence of the opinion is that being innocent of a crime is not enough.
First, let us unpack what the ramifications are of Shinn v. Martinez by putting into plain English the legal issues presented in the case. The question presented in Shinn v. Martinez is whether a federal court is permitted to hear a prisoner’s post conviction claim of ineffective assistance of counsel if they failed to preserve the issue in state court in the first habeus corpus petition.
Usually, if an individual is convicted of a state crime by a jury, and they feel as if it was unfair, they can appeal to the State’s District Court. They will then petition for their first appeal to the Court of Appeals in the state. If the court of appeals denies the petition, or affirms the District Court’s opinion, then the individual can petition the state’s Supreme Court. This process will vary from state-to-state, but the idea is that the individual must exhaust all options before filing a post-conviction relief claim.
Once all regular forms of appeal are exhausted in criminal court, the individual can sue the state in civil court for post-conviction relief, usually asserting good “cause.” Cause will be based on theories of new and compelling evidence that were not available. Plain error by the District Court (or the trial court) is another legal theory in which an individual can bring a post-conviction relief claim.
Generally, the state court will then do what’s called an evidentiary hearing, looking both to the facts that came out of the criminal case and looking to new evidence. The state’s civil court will look to see if the evidence is “clear and convincing” which is a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The biggest difference in this phase is that the defendant has the burden of proof instead of the state.
If the defendant’s post-conviction relief petition in state civil court is denied, then the defendant can appeal. If the appeal is denied, then the individual can file a habeus corpus petition (a claim for the person’s release) with the federal court alleging that the state errored or infringed upon certain unalienable constitutional rights.
At this phase of post-conviction relief, the federal court is generally not allowed to look beyond the state’s record unless it fits narrow exceptions like, new evidence and procedural issues like ineffective assistance of counsel. Or rather, the federal court usually not be allowed to hold a whole new trial with witnesses or allow new evidence to come in that was not available to the state court.
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This is because usually, they are looking to overturn convictions based on good cause or plain error. The exceptions allow new evidence to be heard by federal courts in extraordinary instances – like DNA evidence or when counsel was defective in earlier proceedings. See 28 U.S. Code § 2254(e)(2)(ii).
In Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, the Arizona federal district court decided two cases on the theory of ineffective assistance of counsel – a constitutional claim rooted in the 6th amendment right to counsel. See Strickland v. Washington (the standard of what constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel).
The facts of these cases aren’t relevant, but what is relevant is that the federal appeals court made both cases go beyond the state’s record to determine the question of ineffectiveness of counsel because it was obvious something went wrong in the former proceedings. Justice required the appeals court to ask the federal district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue- meaning new evidence could be added to the record. In Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, Arizona petitioned en blanc (meaning the bench) the United Supreme Court to decide whether a federal court could do this. The Supreme Court decided they could not.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is important because it is far-reaching. The ruling basically gutted a person’s right to sue for post-conviction relief. The decision announced that individuals incarcerated at the state level have no constitutional right to present new evidence in federal court to support their claims of wrongful conviction. This means if their attorney sucked, they cannot present this new evidence.
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This means if there is new DNA evidence, they cannot submit this to the court as a means to prove their innocence. In this decision, the supreme court announces it is not enough to be innocent of the crime you were wrongfully convicted.
The question presented in front of the Supreme Court may not seem like a big deal at first glance. However, all the procedural hoops a wrongfully convicted individual must go through to prove their innocence is already substantial. It is expensive, complicated, and almost hopeless. For someone sitting in prison for life, or facing death row, for something they didn’t do – the Supreme Court’s decision could mean the difference between life and death.
The Supreme Court in their decision in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez makes proving one’s innocence post-conviction even harder – if not impossible. From this decision, a federal court will not be able to open up the record to allow new evidence to come in– further punishing indigent clients for their lack of ability to secure a fair trial.
The question becomes at what point will the criminal justice system place individual lives in front of upholding a broken and often racist system? The decision in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez embraces the idea that it does not matter if you are innocent. They tell us the Supreme Court does not care if you are innocent, it is not enough. Through this ruling that it does not matter if an individual had an unjust trial, there is no constitutional right to bring claims of new evidence of an ineffective trial to federal court for state defendants.
This is not how justice has should be served, but the addiction to procedure outweighs the need for fairness.
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To read a plain-English explanation of Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez and its ramifications see: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-supreme-court-just-said-in-in-shinn-v-ramirez-that-evidence-of-innocence-is-not-enough.