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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court to Decide Right to Effective Assistance on Habeas Appeal

Posted Jun 7, 2011 5:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear an appeal that involves claims of ineffective assistance of counsel at both the trial and habeas levels.

SCOTUSblog calls the cert grant “a big deal in habeas law.” The issue is whether a defendant has a right to effective assistance of counsel in a habeas appeal raising ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level.

The petitioner, Luis Mariano Martinez, had been convicted of sexual contact with a minor in Arizona, where state law bars ineffective counsel claims on direct appeal. The alleged victim, Martinez’s stepdaughter, had recanted her accusations, but a prosecution expert testified at trial that such a change of heart is most often caused by a lack of support by the victim’s mother. The testimony was inaccurate, but the defense never objected, Martinez’s lawyers assert in the cert petition (PDF).

While Martinez’s direct appeal was pending, his court-appointed appellate lawyer filed a notice of post-conviction relief saying she could find no colorable claims and asking for an order giving her client 45 days to file a pro se petition. She didn’t tell Martinez about the filing or the need to file his own appeal, Martinez alleges.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred Martinez’s claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective, saying it had been procedurally defaulted by his first habeas lawyer. Martinez argues there is a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel for a defendant’s first-chance review of a claim of ineffective assistance at trial.

“A defendant is ill-equipped to litigate an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim without the assistance of post-conviction counsel—and such assistance is of little use if it is not effective,” the cert petition says.

The case is Martinez v. Schriro.

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