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U.S. Supreme Court Expands Post-Conviction Appeals

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a case that could help people already convicted of crimes appeal their convictions in federal court.

The ruling allows a previously convicted defendant a chance for a retrial, if a judge finds their defense attorney was ineffective. The court based its ruling on the case of Carlos Treviño, a Texas death row inmate convicted of assaulting and murdering a young woman in a San Antonio park in 1996.

The case is similar to the death penalty case of George McFarland, whose sleeping attorney brought national attention to the issue of poor representation in Texas.

Jim Marcus with UT Law School’s Capital Punishment Clinic, says today’s 5 to 4 decision means people will now be able to appeal their convictions on the basis of poor representation even in federal court. Marcus filed a “friend of the court brief” in the case of Treviño v. Thaler.

“This is a capital case, the Treviñocase,” Marcus said, “but this decision applies to all prisoners, not just death sentence prisoners.”

Even with today’s Supreme Court decision, Marcus says it’s extremely difficult to prove poor representation. Although sleeping attorneys are not very common, he said poor representation by omission is widespread.

Marcus sets the scene of a hypothetical case: “There might be a case where there is an eyewitness who implicates your client as being present at the scene. But, you know? There’s four other eyewitnesses that were never talked to who say differently. So, more often than not what we are talking about are errors that result in the jury being deprived of a full and accurate picture of the facts of the case.”

Another challenge in non-capital cases is that convicts are not provided with lawyers to do the work on their behalf.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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