Oral argument in Trevino v. Thaler set for Monday, February 25
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider a Texas murderer’s petition arguing that he should be allowed federal court review of his claim that his sentencing lawyer was ineffective because his state habeas corpus lawyer failed to adequately present that claim to state courts. Earlier Supreme Court decisions have barred challenges to the competency of habeas corpus counsel, but last year in Martinez v. Ryan and Maples v. Thomas the Court created two narrow exceptions to that rule. In Trevino v. Thaler, Carlos Trevino seeks to expand that rule with a decision that requires a federal court to review a challenge to the competence of a criminal’s state habeas corpus attorney. If the challenge is successful, the criminal would be allowed to raise challenges to his conviction in federal court that he never raised in the state courts, effectively bypassing the landmark reform enacted by Congress in 1996.
At the invitation of the Texas Solicitor General, the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to argue for a decision denying Trevino’s claim.
“The exception that the defendant is seeking in this case would swallow the rule,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. “Convicted criminals routinely claim that their trial lawyers were ineffective, and those sentenced to death nearly always do. If the Supreme Court accepts this argument, it will add a new layer of litigation and delay to a system that already has too many layers,” he added.
The case involves Trevino’s 1997 conviction and death sentence for the kidnapping, gang rape, and murder of 15-year-old Linda Salinas. The facts taken from court records show that on the evening of June 9, 1996, Salinas called her best friend Stephanie and arranged for them to meet at a nearby Whataburger restaurant. When Stephanie and her brother arrived, Salinas was not there. Earlier that evening Trevino, a gang member and habitual felon accompanied by four friends, drove to a convenience store to buy beer. A member of the group spotted Salinas using the telephone and agreed to give her a ride to the Whataburger. They instead took her to a park and dragged her into the woods. Four of the five men took turns raping and sodomizing the girl while the others held her down. Finally, according to the statements of one of the accomplices, Trevino snapped the girl’s neck and stabbed her. Medical evidence later indicated that Salinas bled to death. As the group left the scene, Trevino bragged that he had “learned how to kill people in prison.”
Evidence introduced at trial included testimony from witnesses who saw the victim leave the convenience store with the five men and statements from one of the accomplices who witnessed the gang rape but refused to participate. The jury also learned that the victim’s blood was found on Trevino’s shirt, and that DNA testing of blood on the victim’s underwear excluded everyone involved in the crime except Trevino.
Two years after the trial, Trevino’s conviction and death sentence were upheld on direct appeal. Trevino then argued on state habeas corpus that his trial attorney was ineffective at both the guilt and sentencing phases. After an evidentiary hearing, the appeals court denied the claim. Trevino, with a different attorney, then sought review of his claim on federal habeas corpus while, at the same time seeking a second round of state review. The Federal District Court stayed its consideration of the case until state review was completed. Before the Texas court, Trevino then claimed that his first habeas corpus attorney was ineffective because he did not argue that the trial attorney was ineffective for failing to present enough evidence about his troubled childhood at the sentencing hearing. In 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the petition. The Federal District Court then lifted its stay and conducted a review of Trevino’s federal petition. The Court held that the attack on the competence of his habeas counsel was procedurally defaulted, and found in addition that the supposedly mitigating evidence had no effect on Trevino’s guilt and would not have resulted in his receiving a different sentence. The Federal Court of Appeals later affirmed that judgment.
Last October, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider Trevino’s claim that an exception to the rule prohibiting challenges to a habeas corpus attorney should be made in his case. Trevino argues that the exception the high court created last year in Martinez v. Ryan should be expanded beyond the unusual Arizona system at issue in that case.
In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation points out that the exception sought by Trevino would effectively abolish the rule established by the Court in the landmark 1991 case of Coleman v. Thompson. It would add a new layer of litigation to virtually every death penalty case in the country and many non-death penalty cases. The intent of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and many similar state laws is to require criminal defendants to present their strongest claims in the initial state court review of a conviction and sentence. With rare exceptions, when a defendant fails to do so, that claim cannot be raised at a later state or federal court hearing. The basic exception is when enforcing the rule results in a fundamental miscarriage of justice, such as conviction of an innocent person. Two exceptions, created by the Supreme Court last year, include cases where state law prohibits raising claims against the trial attorney during the initial appeal and cases where a defendant’s claims are defaulted because his habeas corpus attorney abandoned him. Neither of these exceptions applies to Trevino’s case. Any new exception broad enough to accommodate his case would be exploited by nearly every condemned murderer seeking to delay justice.