Release Date: May 23, 2022
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Decision in Shinn v. Ramirez & Jones announced today

In a 6-3 decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court overturned Ninth Circuit rulings in two murder cases. The lower court rulings had announced new delays in the death sentence of an Arizona double murderer and had overturned the conviction of a man found guilty of killing a 4-year-old girl. At issue in Shinn v. David Ramirez & Barry Jones is whether the attorneys for the murderers can introduce new evidence on federal habeas corpus that they failed to present during years of state court review, which is prohibited under federal law.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined these cases to encourage a decision to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s rulings, arguing that the lower court had misinterpreted federal law and Supreme Court precedent.

The high court’s majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas noted that Congress had prohibited new hearings in federal court in these circumstances, with only narrow exceptions, and the courts had no authority to create their own exceptions. The defendants’ proposed exception “lacks any principled limit.” In addition, Justice Thomas wrote, “Serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that ‘is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law.’ ”

A jury convicted David Ramirez, a parolee with two violent prior felonies, on strong evidence of the 1989 stabbing murder of his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter. On the day of the murders, police were summoned to the victims’ apartment by neighbors who heard screaming. Ramirez was found covered in blood inside the apartment alone with the victims’ bodies. Both died of multiple stab wounds, and the girl was found nude. Ramirez later admitted having sex with the young girl on the night of the murders as well as on four prior occasions. At trial, Ramirez did not deny his guilt, but claimed that his difficult childhood and mental disabilities disqualified him from a death sentence. The judge disagreed and, based upon the aggravating circumstances, sentenced him to death. After several years of review on appeal and state habeas corpus, Ramirez claimed for the first time on federal habeas corpus that his trial attorney was incompetent because he failed to introduce evidence of his “mental retardation, brain damage, impaired intellectual functioning, childhood poverty, childhood neglect and abuse, in utero exposure to pesticides and alcohol, and the fact that he was the product of the rape of his 15-year-old mother by his uncle. He also contends that [his attorney failed] to provide [appointed expert] Dr. McMahon with additional information concerning Ramirez’s low IQ scores and poor grades.”

Barry Jones was convicted of the 1994 sexual assault and murder of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter. Neighbors testified to seeing Jones hit the child the day before she died. Friends testified that while visiting Jones that evening they saw the little girl lying on a couch bleeding and crying in pain. Jones lied, saying that a paramedic had examined her. Early the next morning, after the little girl died, Jones dropped her and her mother off at a hospital and drove away. The Pima County medical examiner determined that the child died from an infection caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen and that she had also been sexually assaulted. For these crimes, Jones received a death sentence. After his conviction and sentence were upheld by Arizona courts on direct review and state habeas corpus, Jones claimed for the first time on federal habeas corpus that his trial attorney had been incompetent for failing to sufficiently challenge the medical evidence by introducing experts questioning the timeline for the child’s injuries. The claim does not challenge the evidence that Jones failed to take the badly injured girl for medical attention and falsely told concerned people that she had already been seen by paramedics.

In Ramirez’s case, the federal district court denied the murderer’s claims, finding that based upon the trial record, the defense attorney was not incompetent. In Jones’s case, the district court initially denied the claims but granted them after the Ninth Circuit sent the case back. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of both murderers on appeal, announcing that the U. S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Martinez v. Ryan allowed the new evidence.

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Arizona’s appeal, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation agreed to join the case. In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 clearly restricts the introduction of new claims and evidence that could have been presented during the state court review of the convictions and sentences. To the extent that the Martinez decision might be interpreted to conflict with that restriction, the federal statute prevails.

“Both murderers had the opportunity to make their cases in state court,” said Scheidegger. “In 1996, Congress cracked down on the misuse of habeas corpus to second-guess judgments that have already been fully and fairly decided in state courts. Today’s decision affirms that federal courts cannot make up their own exceptions to evade that law,” he added.

Criminal Justice Legal Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for
comment at (916) 446-0345