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New look at flawed lawyering?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday evening strongly hinted that one of last Term’s key rulings on the duties of criminal defense lawyers may get a prompt new look next Term, to see if it applies to death-penalty cases in Texas — the nation’s most active state in issuing and carrying out that ultimate sentence.  The Court, in a brief order, put on hold an execution that had been set to occur shortly afterward in Texas for a man convicted more than 12 years ago of a triple murder.  The case of John Lezell Balentine, 43, appears to be a major test of the impact of the Court’s 7-2 ruling last March in Martinez v. Ryan.

In the Martinez decision, the Court had created an exception to prior rulings that had strictly limited a convicted individual’s right to complain that a defense lawyer had not performed effectively at the trial.  If a state will not allow an individual to raise that kind of claim until after the conviction has become final, and the inmate is pursuing a post-conviction challenge, a federal court can decide the claim even if it would otherwise have been barred from doing so, for procedural reasons.  The Court majority insisted it was writing only a narrow ruling, but the two dissenters argued that it was a sweeping new ruling that would have its greatest impact in capital cases.  The Martinez case was not a capital case; rather, it involved an Arizona conviction for child sex abuse.   The new Balentine case is the first to reach the Court to test whether and how that decision applies to capital cases, and whether it applies at all to such cases in Texas.

The Fifth Circuit Court refused last Friday to delay John Balentine’s execution, set for shortly after 6 p.m. (Texas time) Wednesday.  It noted that it had ruled in June, in the case of Ibarra v. Thaler, that the Martinez decision did not apply to capital cases in Texas.   Defendants, the Circuit Court said, are not totally barred — in their initial state court direct appeals of their convictions — from raising the claim that they were not properly represented by their lawyers at the trial.  Since the Martinez ruling only applies when such a claim can only be raised later, in a post-conviction proceeding, it does not have any effect in Texas capital cases as a result of its own Ibarra decision, the Circuit Court said.

That is the result that the Supreme Court blocked about an hour before Balentine was due to be executed at a prison in Huntsville, Texas.  The order will remain in effect until the Court acts finally on Balentine’s pending plea seeking to reopen his case in an attempt to take advantage of the Martinez prcecedent.   Balentine’s petition for review is here; his stay-of-execution application here, and the state of Texas’s opposition to both pleas is here.  (The case is Balentine v. Thaler, docket 12-5906; stay application 12A173.)

Balentine was convicted in 1999 of the murders of three teenagers at a house in Amarillo.   He was sentenced to death for those murders, and lawyers for him have pursued several challenges since then, so far unsuccessfully   Their basic claim is that his defense lawyer at trial failed to conduct any investigation into Balentine’s childhood in a severely deprived and violent family, his slow emotional development, and the effect of a head injury that had gone untreated.  Under Supreme Court precedent, an individual sentenced to death for a murder has a right to have a lawyer seek to develop any available form of evidence that might help persuade the jury not to impose a death sentence.  His trial lawyers, he claims, made no such effort.   He has been barred from raising that claim in a federal habeas petition because his lawyer did not raise it in his first appeal in state court.

In his challenge to execution, Balentine argued that Texas has a unique procedure for use in death-penalty cases, under which the convicted individual gets two state-appointed lawyers — one to handle one aspect of his challenges after the verdict, a separate one for other aspects of post-trial challenges.   Under that procedure, it simply is not legally acceptable, under Texas law and precedents, his attorneys have argued, to raise an ineffective lawyering claim about how defense counsel conducted the trial or sentencing.   Texas, his attorneys assert, channels such ineffectiveness claims into the post-conviction procedure that is handled by an attorney named solely for that purpose — precisely the kind of situation, they say, for which the Supreme Court issued its Martinez decision.

The Fifth Circuit did not accept that interpretation of how the Texas system of death-penalty review works.  If the Supreme Court accepts Balentine’s case for full review next Term, as now seems likely, it will have to sort out whether the Fifth Circuit has misread Texas’s procedures.  The Supreme Court has often been engaged in running legal controversies with the Fifth Circuit, especially in capital cases.

If the Court opts to deny review of Balentine’s case, the stay issued Wednesday will expire automatically, clearing the way for Texas to set a new execution date.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New look at flawed lawyering?, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 23, 2012, 4:13 AM),