28 May 2013

Law in Plain English: Trevino v. Thaler

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Trevino v. Thaler

Trevino was convicted for the rape and murder of a fifteen year old girl in Texas, and subsequently sentenced to death. He made both a direct appeal and a post-conviction collateral attack, pursuant to Texas law in capital cases. All of the claims in both cases were rejected. Trevino then raised a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) in a new federal habeas claim, despite having never raised this issue in either of his state proceedings. Texas law prefers claims of IAC to be made in collateral proceedings (because they often rely on evidence outside of the trial record), but does not explicitly prohibit such a claim to be raised on direct appeal. Because Trevino had not previously raised his IAC claim in either state proceeding, his claim was procedurally defaulted. However, in last year's decision in Martinez v. Ryan, the Supreme Court held that where, under state law, IAC claims must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing those claims if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective. In other words,  IAC at the initial collateral proceeding is cause to overcome procedural default. Because Texas law prefers claims of IAC to be made in collateral proceedings (but does not explicitly prohibit such a claim to be raised on direct appeal), the question before the Court was whether the holding in Martinez should extend to Trevino. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that when a state's procedural framework by reason of its design and operation makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise an ineffective assistance claim on direct appeal, the exception recognized in Martinez v. Ryan applies, and Martinez should extend to this case. As a result, Trevino's claim can proceed. The practical impact of this decision is that petitioners making post-relief convictions claims will have a (slightly) easier opportunity to bring them under similar circumstances.
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