In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled in Martinez V Ryan that prisoners can have access to a new trial in federal court in situations where they have had ineffective legal counsel. On Monday, May 23rd, the Supreme Court which is now split into a 6-3 conservative majority, barred federal courts from hearing new evidence that as a result of the defendant’s ineffective legal representation was not previously presented in a state court. This means that there is little lifeline left for those who are wrongly convicted or had ineffective counsel. This new ruling is also punishing possibly innocent people or disproportionately punishing criminals due to their attorneys’ failings and of no fault of their own.
Many Americans cannot afford their own legal counsel, so they are at the mercy of court-appointed representation. If you are in a trial, you will want the best representation you can find. If you are limited financially, you have few options. It is also worth noting that in some states such as Arizona some public defenders have not received a raise in over 30 years. As many Americans are feeling the burden of inflation without pay raises, we would be naive to assume that the legal field isn’t feeling the heat as well which could lead to resentment and poor performance. This may directly impact the individuals they are representing. Whether an individual is acquitted or found guilty, counsel still gets paid. Not only that, but the Supreme Court expressed that allowing federal retrial is too much of a financial burden. They claim that allowing new federal trials would be overriding the “finality” of state-court judgments.
Since 1972 over 15,000 Americans have been executed and 187 of them were later exonerated. It is estimated that approximately 11% of all people executed in America have been innocent. Unfortunately, there will likely always be a percentage of error but the margin here is disturbingly large. In cases of death sentences, it has been very difficult to get those judgments overturned. Now with the new ruling, it will make it that much harder if not impossible to overturn a ruling. Often the goal isn’t to exonerate the prisoner but to lessen the sentencing. With less wiggle room, we can expect to see an increase of executions from this ruling.
The Sexual Assault Evidence Kit otherwise known as “the rape kit” that we use in America has been useful in exonerating the wrongly convicted through DNA evidence withheld in their initial trial. The rape kit was first released in 1970 by Police Sergeant Louis Vitullo. It is a standardized tool to gather forensic evidence after sexual assaults. The use of DNA processing, however, was not nearly as thorough or accurate as it is now. Several prisoners such as Florida native Robert Duboise, have been exonerated through processing old and thought to be destroyed DNA. Duboise served 37 years in prison before being proved innocent by processing DNA with new technology and presenting new evidence.
Without being able to present new evidence, situations such as the Duboise case wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ultimately lead to exoneration. The Supreme Court is claiming that prisoners are flooding the judicial system with inaccurate testimony and faulty leads that are causing systemic issues and strain on employees. Is it too much to ask our justice system to effectively comb through these findings? Given all the information on the percentages of wrongly convicted criminals, it seems like an important role in our system and one that should remain intact.
Although it may be frustrating to think our justice system allows innocent prisoners to slip through the cracks, the even scarier fact is that the real criminals are likely still free. It is twofold problem, imprisoning an innocent individual but also having an individual who has committed a crime go unpunished which gives them the freedom to commit more crimes. But without knowing that our justice system has the wrong person there would be no reason to continue an investigation. So, in this sense, it is also important not only for the wrongly convicted but for the justice of the victims and the safety of our communities. We must also keep in mind that not only is this a barbaric ruling, but this is also the results of the right-wing “pro-life” conservatives currently dominating the Supreme Court. Does this sound like a just and pro-life decision to you?