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Supreme Court ruling could send innocent Arizona convict to his death, critics contend

Two lower courts agreed that lawyers bungled Barry Lee Jones' murder defense. But in 6-3 decision, high court rules Jones never should have gotten a hearing.

PHOENIX — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday in an Arizona case may have condemned an innocent man to die. This comes despite lower court rulings that lawyers had bungled his defense.

On a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the high court limited challenges to convictions based on bad legal help. 

Under the decision in Shinn v. Ramirez, a federal court never should have held a hearing four years ago that resulted in Barry Lee Jones' murder conviction being overturned. A retrial ordered by the judge will never be held.

HOW THE DECISION AFFECTS THE NATION: Supreme Court decision 'all but overrules two recent precedents' in Arizona-based case

"We might see another innocent person executed," said Valena Beety, an Arizona State University law professor who's worked both as a federal prosecutor and as a lawyer seeking justice for people who were wrongly convicted.

"We like to think that there aren't any innocent people on death row. But there are," Beety said. "One of the main leading causes of a wrongful conviction on death row is your attorney wasn't very good."

The case also affects Arizona death row inmate David Ramirez, who was sentenced to death 32 years ago for fatally stabbing his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter. 

His lawyers have argued that Ramirez's intellectual and developmental disabilities were never brought up at trial. That mitigating information, his lawyers say, might have resulted in a sentence of life without parole.

Brnovich Applauds Ruling

Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who has reopened Arizona's death chamber after a botched execution eight years ago, applauded the ruling on a case brought by his office.

"The wheels of justice take time to turn," he said on Twitter. "But they should not be stuck for decades."

Since 1973, at least 187 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

'Massive Fail For Legal System'

Beety contends that exonerating someone who's wrongly convicted helps to keep a community safe.

"That's a massive fail for our legal system to get the wrong person," she said. "We need to correct that, not just for the wrongfully incarcerated person, but to protect our communities from the perpetrator who is probably still free."

Jones was convicted of the 1994 sexual assault and killing of a 4-year-old Tucson girl who was his girlfriend's daughter. 

RELATED: Arizona prisoner won’t be executed in gas chamber

'Jury Would Not Have Convicted Him'

A federal court judge and a three-judge appellate court panel both agreed Jones' lawyers had botched his defense.

"Petitioner has shown that had counsel performed constitutionally adequately, there is a reasonable probability that his jury would not have convicted him of any of the crimes with which he was charged and previously convicted," Judge Timothy Burgess said in a 2018 ruling that ordered a retrial.

Brnovich's office didn't dispute the rulings.

Instead, it appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that a 1996 federal law barred federal courts from hearing evidence of poor legal help after a trial in state courts.

'An Affront to the State'

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He said intervention by federal courts is "an affront to the State and its citizens who returned a verdict of guilt after considering the evidence before them."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a pointed dissent: "The Court's decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel."

Next Execution in June

Frank Atwood is the next Arizona death row inmate scheduled to be put to death, by lethal injection.

He was convicted of kidnapping and killing 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson of Tucson in 1985. 

This will be Arizona's second execution in two months.

Clarence Dixon was put to death two weeks ago for murdering ASU student Deana Bowdoin 44 years ago.

Brnovich, who is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, has eight months left in his second and final term in the attorney general's office. 

RELATED: Convicted child murderer scheduled for execution in Arizona

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