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Ninth Circuit Holds Evidence from Martinez Hearing Can Be Considered in Granting Habeas Relief, Despite Bar Against Evidentiary Hearings on Facts Not Raised Below

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held on November 29, 2019, that evidence obtained by the district court at a hearing on whether state postconviction counsel was ineffective could be used in order to grant habeas corpus relief, despite the ban on evidentiary hearings to develop facts that were not addressed in the state court.

The case came before the Court after the State appealed the grant of habeas corpus relief to Barry Jones in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. There, Judge Timothy M. Burgess used facts gathered from a hearing on whether state counsel was ineffective for failing to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claim at the postconviction review (“PCR”) proceedings, which would have procedurally barred the claim in federal court. The judge found that PCR counsel was ineffective for not raising the IAC claim in state court and in turn found that trial counsel were ineffective.

Jones was charged with multiple crimes in the 1994 death of his girlfriend’s young daughter. He was convicted in 1995 by a jury. The judge found aggravating factors and imposed the death penalty at a time when judges were allowed to find such facts. Since then, the Supreme Court has held that only juries can find these aggravating facts. Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

After his conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, Jones filed a PCR motion raising several claims. After a hearing, the motion was denied in state court. Jones then filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for habeas corpus relief, but this time raised a claim that was not raised by PCR counsel. He claimed that counsel was ineffective for failing to conduct sufficient investigations into the evidence and the timeline of the injuries allegedly inflicted by Jones relating to the time of death.

The district court found that most of Jones’ § 2254 claim was procedurally defaulted because he had not raised those issues in state court before bringing them in federal court. The rule of procedural default mandates that “federal habeas review of the claims is barred unless the prisoner can demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result” or that ignoring the claim will result in a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991).

However, the Supreme Court held in Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), that cause can be established to allow a district court to hear a claim not raised in a PCR motion in state court if, in the PCR proceedings, “there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective” for not raising a “substantial” IAC claim.

Eventually, the district court held a hearing in 2017 pursuant to Martinez on whether Jones’ PCR counsel was ineffective for not raising the IAC claim he presented in his § 2254 petition. The court concluded that counsel was ineffective, which provided “cause” to excuse the procedural default and allowed the court to hear his claim in full. The court then found that Jones’ trial counsel was ineffective and granted the petition.

The State appealed, arguing that the district court erred by using facts from the Martinez hearing to decide whether to grant relief. [Writer’s note: a district court’s order granting habeas relief is not appealable unless a court “stays” that order to allow an appeal. The district court here denied the State’s request to stay for an appeal, but the Ninth Circuit granted it.]

The State’s argument on appeal was based on the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (“AEDPA”) addition to § 2254(e)(2) that a federal district court “shall not hold an evidentiary hearing” on claims that were not addressed by the state PCR court, except in situations arguably not at issue in Jones’ case.

The question before the Court was whether § 2254(e)(2) barred the district court from using the facts found at the Martinez hearing, despite the bar against evidentiary hearings under that section.

In Martinez, the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit said, addressed the issue of whether a prisoner has been denied a fair process and the ability to adhere to the established procedures for obtaining an adjudication on the merits. It explained that the Supreme Court was concerned with a prisoner’s opportunity to “vindicate a substantial ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel-claim,” which “often depends on evidence outside the trial record.”

The Ninth Circuit pointed to the district court’s reasoning in its denial of the State’s motion to stay for an appeal on why Martinez hearing evidence could be considered in deciding a habeas petition: “It is simply illogical, and extraordinarily burdensome to the court and the litigants, in a post-Martinez world, for a court to allow full evidentiary development and hearing on the Martinez claim, but not to allow consideration of that very same evidence as to the merits of the underlying trial-counsel IAC claim because his constitutionally ineffective PCR counsel failed to raise that claim.”

And the Supreme Court’s severe restriction on hearings in Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170 (2011), does not require anything different, the Court said. In Cullen, the Supreme Court held that a federal court is confined to the evidentiary “record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Since the claim in Jones’ case wasn’t adjudicated by the state court, the Cullen rule doesn’t apply, the Ninth Circuit concluded.

Holding that the district court was allowed to use the Martinez hearing evidence in deciding Jones’ habeas petition, the Court addressed the district court’s grant of relief on his claim. The district court concluded that trial counsel acted unreasonably in failing to conduct a medical investigation into the timing of the victim’s injuries allegedly inflicted by Jones. It found that there was a reasonable probability that, absent counsel’s errors, the jury would have had a reasonable doubt as to Jones’ guilt. And that’s all that Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), requires in order to show prejudice, the court said.

At the Martinez hearing, Jones’ former trial counsel admitted that they “dropped the ball and didn’t follow up properly” investigating the injury timeline relating to the child’s death. A doctor also testified at the hearing that the injuries may not have been tied to the death and may have occurred earlier than the State’s experts had said.

But counsel never presented this evidence, the district court said, because they never investigated it in the first place. Under Strickland, “counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary.” The district court rejected the State’s argument that counsel’s decision not to pursue the injury timeline defense was a “strategic decision” insulated from IAC review.

While counsel may choose not to pursue a defense, the district court said, it can only do so after it investigates the defense. The Ninth Circuit agreed, explaining, “Trial counsel cannot reasonably choose not to present evidence without undertaking the underlying investigation that would uncover the evidence.” In other words, counsel still must do the investigation, even if it decides after the investigation not to use that line of defense.

Thus, the Court held that “the district court properly considered evidence adduced at the Martinez hearing to determine whether Jones’s IAC claim was excused from procedural default when determining the merits of Jones’s underlying IAC claim even though this evidence was not before the state court.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of habeas relief and remanded for further proceedings, including a proper remedy in light of counsel’s ineffective assistance. See: Jones v. Shinn, 943 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2019). 

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Jones v. Shinn



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