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The Supreme Court just condemned a man to die despite strong evidence he’s innocent

The Court effectively overruled two of its previous decisions, and it is likely an innocent man will die as a result.

The US Supreme Court at dusk in October 2021.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In 1995, Barry Jones was convicted of murdering Rachel Gray, his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, and sentenced to die. Since then, the case against him has shattered.

Gray died of a laceration of her small intestine, an extremely painful injury that slowly floods the victim with poisonous fluids. The prosecution’s theory was that Jones must have inflicted this injury on Gray during a four-hour period when he was taking care of her on May 1, 1994. Gray died about 12 hours later.

But this theory does not make sense medically. Gray’s injury would have killed her slowly, and should not have proved fatal in only 12 hours. In a comprehensive article reviewing the evidence against Jones, the Intercept’s Liliana Segura quotes three physicians who say that the prosecution’s theory is wrong.

One, who Segura describes as a “renowned pediatric forensic pathologist,” said that Gray’s injury “could not possibly have been inflicted on the day prior to her death.”

There are also several other potential suspects. Gray’s mother Angela, for starters, was eventually convicted of child abuse and sentenced to eight years in prison. There’s evidence that Gray’s brother sexually preyed on young girls. And, on top of all of that, Gray reportedly said shortly before her death that a boy had hit her in the stomach with a metal bar.

Simply put, no sensible jury confronted with all of this evidence would have concluded that Jones was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But Jones’s lawyers failed to present crucial evidence at his trial. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in an opinion released on Monday, “Jones’ trial counsel failed to undertake even a cursory investigation and, as a result, did not uncover readily available medical evidence that could have shown that Rachel sustained her injuries when she was not in Jones’ care.” Then, after Jones challenged his conviction in a state court proceeding, he was met with, as Sotomayor put it, “another egregious failure of counsel.”

In the words of the law, Jones was denied his constitutionally required right to effective assistance of counsel — twice.

Sotomayor, however, wrote these words in a dissenting opinion. On a party line vote in Shinn v. Ramirez, the Court held that Jones will not receive a fair trial despite his lawyers’ poor performance.

Barry Jones was sentenced to die for a 1994 murder, despite considerable evidence that he is innocent.
Courtesy of Pima County Sheriff’s Department

(The Ramirez case is called “Ramirez” and not “Jones” because the Court simultaneously decided a similar case involving David Ramirez, who was sentenced to die despite strong evidence that he is intellectually disabled and thus cannot receive a death sentence under the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002). Monday’s decision most likely ensures that Ramirez will not receive a new sentencing proceeding to determine whether he is intellectually disabled.)

Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion claimed that a law restricting the power of federal courts to toss out convictions in state courts prevents Jones from seeking relief. But Thomas’s reading of this law is novel — his opinion had to gut two fairly recent Supreme Court decisions to deny relief to Jones.

Jones would have received a new trial if the Supreme Court hadn’t changed the law

Before Monday, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Martinez v. Ryan (2012) and Trevino v. Thaler (2013) should have guaranteed Jones a new trial. Both decisions deal with what should happen in the unusual circumstance when someone accused of a crime receives ineffective assistance of counsel, twice.

In Strickland v. Washington (1984), the Supreme Court held that a conviction must be tossed out if defense “counsel’s performance was deficient” and if this “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” This safeguard against constitutionally inadequate lawyering would be meaningless if people who received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial could not challenge that conviction, either on appeal or in some other proceeding.

Martinez and Trevino established that someone convicted of a crime must have at least one shot at challenging their conviction on the grounds that they received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. States have a fair amount of leeway to decide what sort of process will be used to adjudicate ineffective assistance claims, but they cannot deny any sort of process altogether.

If a state fails to provide convicted individuals with a way to challenge their conviction on ineffective assistance grounds, federal courts may step in and provide a forum to hear this challenge in what is known as a “habeas” proceeding. Martinez, moreover, established that federal courts may step in when a criminal defendant receives inadequate assistance of counsel both at their trial and in a state proceeding permitting them to challenge their conviction.

Both a federal trial court and an appeals court determined that this is exactly what happened to Jones — that is, neither his state trial attorneys nor the lawyers who represented him in his postconviction challenge adequately investigated his case. And, without seeing all the evidence suggesting that Jones is innocent, the state court judge presiding over this postconviction proceeding had no way to know that Jones’s conviction should be tossed out.

The federal trial court held its own evidentiary hearing, considered the evidence against Jones and the evidence that his lawyers botched his case, and ordered the state of Arizona to give him a new trial.

In that court’s words, there was a “reasonable probability that the jury would not have unanimously convicted [Jones] of any of the counts” if Jones’s defense counsel had “adequately investigated and presented medical and other expert testimony to rebut the State’s theory.”

Monday’s decision in Ramirez does not explicitly abandon Martinez and Trevino, but, as Sotomayor explains in dissent, “the Court all but overrules” these two decisions “that recognized a critical exception to the general rule that federal courts may not consider claims on habeas review that were not raised in state court.”

Under Justice Thomas’s majority opinion, federal courts may still conduct habeas proceedings when a criminal defendant alleges that they received inadequate assistance of counsel twice, but the federal court may not consider any evidence that wasn’t presented in earlier proceedings. As Thomas writes, “if a prisoner has ‘failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings,’ a federal court ‘shall not hold an evidentiary hearing on the claim’ unless the prisoner satisfies one of two narrow exceptions” that are not present in Jones’s case.

The problem with this rule should be obvious. The whole point of Jones’s federal case is that his state court lawyers performed so poorly that they failed to uncover evidence that should have exonerated him. If a federal habeas court may only consider evidence that was presented by feckless lawyers to state courts, then there is no point in having a federal habeas proceeding in the first place.

Thomas and Sotomayor have wildly different views of why criminal trials exist

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial,” Sotomayor writes in the first line of her dissent. She continues that “this Court has recognized that right as ‘a bedrock principle’ that constitutes the very ‘foundation for our adversary system’ of criminal justice.”

Thus in Sotomayor’s mind, and in the minds of the two other justices appointed by Democratic presidents who joined her opinion, the purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether or not someone is actually guilty of a crime — and to do so through an adversarial process where both sides are represented by lawyers who can present the best possible legal and factual case for the prosecution and the defense.

Thomas, writing for the Court’s Republican majority, offers a different view of why trials exist. He deems federal habeas proceedings problematic because they “override[] the States’ core power to enforce criminal law.” When a federal court deems someone’s conviction constitutionally inadequate, Thomas complains, it “overrides the State’s sovereign power to enforce ‘societal norms through criminal law,’” and “disturbs the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation.”

Thus, in Thomas’s view, the purpose of a state-conducted trial is to give criminal defendants a procedure in state court. But once that process is concluded, the state court’s decision generally should remain final — even if that means executing an innocent person or condemning someone in violation of the Constitution.

This is consistent with Thomas’s longtime position. As far back as Herrera v. Collins (1993), Thomas joined an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, which claimed that there is “no basis” in the Constitution for “a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after conviction.” At the time, however, Thomas was the only justice who joined Scalia in this view.

Now, however, Thomas has the votes to prevail on an exceedingly conservative Court, so the considerable evidence that Barry Jones is innocent was declared irrelevant. In his initial trial, Jones faced a tribunal that bore at least some superficial resemblance to a fair proceeding. And, under Thomas’s approach, the fact that Jones most likely never killed anyone is irrelevant.

Understanding is critical

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