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Court Ruling Could Affect Texas Death Row Cases

A Tuesday U.S. Supreme Court ruling could open the door for claims from at least two Texas death row inmates who argue that their lawyers did shoddy work.

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Death row inmate Jesse Joe Hernandez, set to be executed next week for the 2001 death of a 10-month-old boy in Dallas, is hoping that a ruling Tuesday from the U.S. Supreme Court could give him another chance to prove that the tragedy was not entirely his fault. 

The nation’s highest court ruled that the failure of initial state habeas lawyers to argue that their client’s trial counsel was ineffective should not prevent the defendant from making that argument later on. Lawyers across the country, including those for at least two Texas death row inmates, were eagerly awaiting the court’s ruling in the Martinez v. Ryan case out of Arizona, which could expand appeals access for inmates.

“A procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing those claims if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in the proceeding was ineffective,” the court majority held.

Habeas lawyers investigate issues that could or should have been raised during a defendant’s original trial.

Brad Levenson, director of the Texas Office of Capital Writs, filed a petition with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday afternoon on behalf of Hernandez, arguing that his March 28 execution should be stayed, in part, because of the court’s ruling.

Although the ruling applies to federal courts, Levenson said, Texas’ highest criminal court should take its cue from the nation’s highest court and hear Hernandez’s claims.

Hernandez was convicted in 2002 for the death of a child who lived in the home where he lived at the time. Hernandez admitted he hit the child, who was rushed to the hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma and then died after he was removed from life support.

In a writ filed Tuesday with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Hernandez argues that his actions did not directly cause the child’s death. Instead, an expert who recently reviewed the medical records concluded that the hospital gave the child a lethal dose of the drug pentobarbital and that he was pulled from life support too soon.

“There’s no way to tell at end of day whether he would have survived,” Levenson said. “Our expert said there’s a very real probability the child could have lived.”

Levenson said Hernandez’s trial lawyers and his initial appeals lawyers were ineffective because they failed to do further investigation and hire their own experts to find out why the child died. Levenson, who took the case only three weeks ago, hired a doctor who reviewed the medical records and determined that the little boy had not been diagnosed as brain-dead before he was removed from life support and that he was given toxic doses of pentobarbital. 

It’s not to say that Mr. Hernandez is not guilty of a crime, but he’s not guilty of capital murder,” Levenson said. 

Current law, though, could prohibit Hernandez from arguing that because his original trial lawyers were ineffective by not further investigating the cause of death that he should get a new trial. Those kinds of claims must be raised from the beginning of the appeals process to be valid later on. And Hernandez’s previous habeas lawyers did not argue that he was inadequately represented.

Levenson said that even though Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling applies to claims made in federal court — not state writs like the one he filed — the same principle ought to apply.

“We’re saying the state courts should also take a look at these claims for the same reason the Supreme Court would take a look at them,” he said.

The ruling could also be a boon for death row inmate Rob Will, who was convicted in 2002 of fatally shooting a Harris County sheriff’s deputy. Will says that the man he was with that night was the real shooter and that he is innocent.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison denied Will’s pleas for a new trial but wrote that he lamented doing so because of “disturbing uncertainties” raised about his guilt.

Will is hoping the court’s ruling in Martinez will allow him to argue that he should get a new trial because both his trial lawyer and his state-appointed habeas lawyer were ineffective when they failed to track down several witnesses who have testified that the other man confessed to the killing.

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