1 of 3 | The U.S. Supreme Court (pictured) issued a ruling Monday, blocking prisoners from introducing new evidence to support a defense of ineffective counsel during federal court hearings, saying any new evidence must be entered first at the state level. File Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo
May 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that prison inmates can not seek evidentiary hearings in federal court and claim their initial trial lawyers failed to provide an adequate defense.
In a split 6-3 ruling, the court denied petitions from two men being held on death row in Arizona.
"A federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on the ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel," Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.
Thomas was joined in the opinion by the court's five other conservative justices.
Barry Jones and David Ramirez were both convicted of murder in separate cases.
Lawyers for both men had argued the two were initially provided with "ineffective assistance of counsel" during the trial phase, attempting to appeal on those grounds to a federal court.
Monday's ruling means federal courts can only consider evidence already presented in the state court record of the case, and that no new evidence can be introduced at that level. Any evidence related to the ineffective counsel defense must be introduced at the state level, including the appellate court.
"The Court understates, or ignores altogether, the gravity of the state systems' failure in these two cases," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion, which was shared by associate justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
"To put it bluntly: Two men whose trial attorneys did not provide even the bare minimum level of representation required by the Constitution may be executed because forces outside of their control prevented them from vindicating their constitutional right to counsel," she wrote.
Jones was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of the 4-year-old daughter of his girlfriend at the time.
Ramirez was convicted of the 1989 murder of Mary Gortarez and her 15-year-old daughter Candie. He was on parole at the time.
Both men are being held at the Arizona Department of Corrections Browning Unit, in Florence, Ariz.