When I first walked in to do my clinic hours for the Innocence Project, I was initiated with a heart-wrenching sexual assault case for a man whom I will call Ralph. Ralph had been arrested and charged about 14 years prior, having spent roughly 10 years in prison and 4 years on parole and on the sex offender registry. The threat of returning to prison at the word of a polygraph examiner, psychiatrist, or any of his parole officers loomed large over his life as he tried to make the most of it in the wake of his prison experience, which is why he sought out the Innocence Project in the first place. Ralph had never gotten a fair trial. He had been profiled by law enforcement and browbeaten into a guilty plea. Though he immediately attempted to recant his guilty plea, his attempt was rejected. This was a clear and obvious violation of the law; in the state in which Ralph was convicted, a criminal defendant can recant a guilty plea for any reason and it must be accepted as a matter of law.
I naturally wondered why such an obvious legal error had not been overturned on appeal. In fact, the appellate judge acknowledged the precedent that would have ensured Ralph a trial but consciously chose not to apply it to this case. His reasoning in this case sticks in my mind so vividly that I can recall it from memory. The judge insisted that allowing a recantation of the guilty plea would “effectively neuter the guilty plea system” which, true or not, had no relevance to the judge’s obligation to adhere to precedent. I was buried in a mountain of withdrawal letters from post-conviction attorneys, all insisting there was nothing they could do about this case that got to me through a combination of bad police work, bad lawyering, and a bad judge. After almost 15 years, I was the first person to ever take Ralph’s case seriously. It was a visceral lesson in how much more our judicial system values the rights of states to make their own life-altering mistakes than its own ability to safeguard the constitutional right to fairness and justice in criminal procedure.
Ralph was one of the lucky ones; at the very least the court’s abuse of discretion didn’t cost him his life. At the time of writing, the number of exonerations of individuals sentenced to be put to death by the state stands at 187 since 1973. A survival analysis published by the National Academy of Sciences conservatively estimated that about 4% of death row inmates would be exonerated, a number of particular significance being nearly 150 times greater than what was estimated by the late Antonin Scalia’s infamous concurrence in Kansas v. Marsh. Asserting a claim of actual innocence after conviction is extremely difficult. The successes (and indeed, the failures) are typically stories of phenomenal perseverance against a number of procedural hurdles designed to protect the courts’ time, ensure state sovereignty, preserve the integrity of jury verdicts, and discourage undeveloped claims. Evidence of innocence is not even sufficient on its own to secure judicial relief. One must instead challenge the legality of an individual’s confinement through a writ of habeas corpus, and to even have a prayer of relief in the federal courts for this purpose one must exhaust their direct appeals and any state-level post-conviction remedies, a requirement that is often only a formality in cases such as Ralph’s where the state shows a consistent disinterest in correcting its own mistakes.
The lessons I learned from Ralph’s case were keenly on my mind when the Supreme Court’s ruling in the recently-decided case Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez came down. Martinez Ramirez is an abnegation of the Supreme Court’s constitutional responsibilities, a blanket refusal to review evidence that no one disagrees would have saved the defendants’ lives, and was never properly considered due to a poorly-prepared defense at trial and a failure to exhaustively litigate post-conviction. A writ of habeas corpus was the defendants’ last hope, and a straightforward reading of the court’s own precedents would suggest that the failure of a lawyer to render adequate postconviction aid should not be a bar to such relief. The court’s majority determined that states’ ability to kill criminal defendants is a higher priority than the federal judiciary’s ability to ensure those defendants are fairly and justly convicted. It was a story I was all too familiar with.
The majority's opinion, which spent more time luridly recounting the details of the crime than the legal justification for the ruling, is galling from a personal perspective, abominable from a humane perspective, incomprehensible from a legal perspective, and unjustifiable from a moral perspective. It is a hideous distortion of justice that attempts to weaponize the language of moral outrage to cast a righteous veil over what is ultimately a Pilatesque washing of the hands. I cannot countenance the naked hypocrisy in asserting that federalism is a legitimate concern in a legal procedure that is already inherently so heavily weighted toward giving the outcomes of state-level proceedings authoritative weight, nor can I take seriously the Supreme Court’s callous disregard for the grave responsibility that taking a human life for any reason imposes upon any system of criminal justice that arrogates such a responsibility to itself.