Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Row Inmate's Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear the case of Texas death row inmate Carlos Trevino in a case that could determine whether a defendant in Texas has a right to “competent” attorney during habeas appeals — a challenge to a criminal conviction that considers whether the defendant's constitutional rights were violated during his trial.

In March, the nation’s highest court decided in Martinez v. Ryan that the failure of state habeas lawyers to argue that their client's trial counsel was ineffective should not keep the defendant from being able to make that argument later in the appeals process.

The question in the Trevino case is whether the court's decision in Martinez applies in Texas, said Trevino’s lawyer, Warren Alan Wolf. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decided in November 2011 that since the laws governing habeas appeals in Texas are different from those in Arizona, the Martinez decision does not apply.

Wolf said he had expected the court to select the case of John Balentine, another Texas death row inmate, as the one with which to decide the question. Balentine was an hour away from execution in August when the court granted him a stay to decide whether his state habeas attorney should have raised claims that his trial counsel had been ineffective. His trial lawyer, Balentine contended, failed to consider mitigating evidence that might have convinced jurors to sentence him to life rather than death.

Dissenting from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ refusal to grant Balentine a hearing, two judges wrote that, “The issue of Martinez v. Ryan’s applicability to capital habeas petitioners in Texas presents an issue of exceptional importance.”

Trevino was convicted in 1997 of the rape and murder of 15-year-old Linda Salinas at a park in San Antonio. At the time, he was a member of the Pisteleros gang, and several other members were charged for the murder. Trevino was the only one sentenced to death.

Trevino’s first habeas attorney, Albert Rodriguez, did “no investigation” outside of the record that already existed, Wolf said, and then became sick and “didn’t want to proceed.” As a result, he explained, “Carlos never really got fair representation.”

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