Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn
In May the Supreme Court gave their decision in Shin v. Ramirez, ruling against two Arizonan men sentenced to death. The case centered on the Sixth Amendment guarantee to “effective counsel,” which says defendants have a right to not just a lawyer, but a lawyer who does their job well. A defendant can get a retrial if they prove “ineffective counsel” in two ways. First, they have to show that their lawyer did not do a “reasonable” job defending them. Second, they have to show that there is a good chance that the case would have gone differently if their lawyer had done their job correctly. The Supreme Court ruled that defendants convicted in state courts do not have the right to bring new evidence to federal courts to prove ineffective counsel.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion for the case, and was joined by fellow liberal justices Elena Kegan and Stephen Breyer. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor said that the ruling would “leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.”
The Shin v. Ramirez ruling came only weeks after Arizona executed the first prisoner in eight years on May 11. The eight year gap in executions started after a botched lethal injection in 2014. In that case, a man lay gasping and choking on the table for nearly two hours, even as he received 15 doses of the state’s lethal injection cocktail. This wasn’t the first time that an Arizona execution didn’t go as planned. In 1992, an inmate sentenced to death by gas chamber remained conscious for 11 minutes. That event led Arizona residents to abolish death by gas chamber in the state that same year.
Things haven’t gotten better. During the May 11 execution this year, Arizona allegedly violated state law, state corrections policies, and a court order by refusing access to some media outlets and obstructing the view of witnesses that were allowed entrance.
Another problem highlighted by the Shin v. Ramirez case is how many people on death row simply do not belong there. Each of the two men in question provided compelling evidence to show that they should not have received the death penalty. New lawyers for David Martinez Ramirez argued in federal court that he has a significant mental disability that makes it unlawful to sentence him to death, and that he should have been sent to prison instead. They argued that failing to present this evidence during the original trial should secure Ramirez a retrial at the least.
When Barry Lee Jones claimed ineffective defense, his new lawyers secured expert testimony and interviewed the lead investigator. In comparison, the lawyers for Jones’ first trial only called one witness, his 11 year old daughter. The federal judge concluded that “there is a reasonable probability that his jury would not have convicted him of any of the crimes” that led to his death sentence if Jones’ original lawyers had done their jobs.
In fact, from 1976 to 2020, 37 people were executed in Arizona. For the same time frame, 10 people on Arizona’s death row were exonerated. For every four people executed, one person is declared innocent. This is over double the national average for the same time frame, which has one person exonerated for every eight people executed.
Arizona had no executions from 1962 until 1992, and then again from 2014 to 2022. Arizona has had no executions for 38 of the past 60 years. It is difficult to argue that the death penalty is needed for society when the lowest crime rates in recorded history came after executions were stopped in 2014. It is also the case that a majority of Americans – 60 percent – believe that life in prison without parole is better than the death penalty. Between botched trials and needlessly mismanaged executions, Arizonans should know by now that it is time to do better.