A Texas death row inmate whose case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court could now face an execution date after the justices on Monday ruled against him in a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines. The man was convicted in the 2008 shooting deaths of a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother in Fort Worth.

The question before the high court in Erick Davila’s case was whether claims of ineffective assistance of counsel during state appeals should be treated the same as during the original trial. Appellate courts throughout the country have ruled differently on the issue, a situation that often prompts the Supreme Court to step in. In the Monday opinion presented by Justice Clarence Thomas, the justices ultimately decided that the different types of lawyers should not be treated the same, making Davila's case ineligible for consideration in federal court. 

"Because a prisoner does not have a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings, ineffective assistance in those proceedings does not qualify as cause to excuse a procedural default," Thomas wrote in his opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch. 

Justice Stephen Breyer, a notable death penalty critic, wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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“The fact that, according to Department of Justice statistics, nearly a third of convictions or sentences in capital cases are overturned at some stage of review suggests the practical importance of the appeal right, particularly in a capital case such as this one,” Breyer wrote in his dissent.

Davila’s case started in Fort Worth in 2008, when he fatally shot a rival gang member’s 5-year-old daughter and mother during a child’s birthday party, according to court documents. Davila, now 30, claims he only meant to kill his rival, Jerry Stevenson. In his confession to police he stated he was trying to get Stevenson and “the guys on the porch.”

If the jury had believed Davila only intended to kill one person, he would have been ineligible for a capital murder verdict and the death penalty would have been off the table. In this case, Davila must have intended to kill multiple people to be found guilty of capital murder.

During deliberations, the jury asked the judge for clarification on the intent issue, and the judge said Davila would be responsible for the crime if the only difference between what happened and his intention was that a different person was hurt. He did not affirm to the jury that Davila must have intended to kill more than one person to be found guilty.

It’s that jury instruction that Davila’s long, complicated case hinged upon. His lawyer at trial objected to the instruction, but was overruled. But in his automatic, direct appeal after being convicted and sentenced to death, his new lawyer never mentioned the judge's instruction, even though that is the appeal where death-sentenced individuals raise what they think are wrongdoings from the trial. Afterward, during his state habeas appeal, which focuses on issues outside of the trial record, the lawyer didn’t fault the previous lawyer for not raising the issue on direct appeal.

The next step in the death penalty appeals process after going through state courts is to move into the federal court system. But federal courts generally can’t rule on issues that could have been raised in state appeals. So, when Davila’s current lawyer, Seth Kretzer, tried to claim his client’s direct appellate lawyer was inadequate for not raising the issue of an improper jury instruction by the judge, the federal courts said they couldn’t look at the issue because it could have been raised by the state habeas appellate lawyer.

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“The way the law works right now is if the trial counsel made a mistake, the federal court could save the inmate’s life, but if the appellate counsel made the mistake, they would have to go ahead and execute,” Kretzer told The Texas Tribune in January.

One exception to this rule was created in 2012 by the Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan, which says that if a state habeas lawyer failed to question a trial lawyer’s inadequacy, the federal courts can review the claim to ensure that defendants are guaranteed a fair trial. But Davila argued that the Martinez exception should apply to inadequacy of the appellate attorneys, as well.

Federal courts have disagreed on this issue, with most circuit courts ruling that appellate lawyers can’t be treated the same as trial lawyers. But the often liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has previously ruled there is no distinction between the two.

During oral arguments on the case in late April, conservative justices appeared concerned that opening up the exception would cause a “flood” of appeals into the federal court system, but the left-leaning members of the court dismissed the idea. Justice Sonia Sotomayor predicted there may be an “initial uptick of claims until people settle down” and realize only a small number of cases are eligible for federal review.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton emphasized the conservative justices' point in a statement issued after the ruling, saying the high court “honored the finality of duly entered convictions” in its decision.

“Had the high court ruled otherwise, states and the federal court system would have been burdened with an avalanche of claims facing an infinitesimal chance of success,” Paxton said.

The state of Texas also argued in its brief to the high court that in Davila’s case, none of the larger legal questions matter because even though the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it couldn’t review the case based on its interpretation of the Martinez exception, it still reviewed the issue of the jury instruction and rejected Davila’s argument that it was improper.

This was the third Texas death penalty case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term, which began in October and ends this week, but it was the first time the justices sided with the state over the inmate. In February, the court agreed with inmate Duane Buck that his case was prejudiced by an expert trial witness who claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black. And in March, the justices sided with Bobby Moore, declaring that Texas’ method for determining intellectual disability for death row inmates was unconstitutional.

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Davila's lawyer, Seth Kretzer, told the Texas Tribune Monday after the Supreme Court announced its decision that the 5-4 ruling shows "why it's so important to keep pressing these things." Kretzer is looking into other possible appeals for Davila in the state courts but recognizes that Tarrant County could soon set an execution date for his client.

"We took this case farther than anyone thought we would, and we intend to keep fighting it," he said.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • At oral arguments in late April, U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed concern about the caseload federal appeals courts might see if they allow Davila another chance in a lower court because of an error his lawyer made in the appeals process. [Full story]

  • In January, the high court agreed to review the legal complexities in Davila's case. [Full story]

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