Trevino v. Thaler

PETITIONER: Carlos Trevino
RESPONDENT: Rick Thaler, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division
LOCATION: Espada Park

DOCKET NO.: 11-10189
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 596 US (2013)
GRANTED: Oct 29, 2012
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2013
DECIDED: May 28, 2013

Andrew S. Oldham - Deputy Solicitor General of Texas, for the respondent
Warren A. Wolf - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

On the night of June 9, 1996, Carlos Trevino and four others drove to a nearby store to pick up beer for a party. One of the men noticed 15-year old Linda Salinas and offered to drive her to a nearby restaurant. Instead, the group drove Linda to Espada Park in San Antonio, Texas where they started to sexually assault her. Trevino's cousin, Juan Gonzalez, refused to participate and returned to the car; meanwhile, Trevino and the three other men continued the assault. Linda's body was discovered in the park the next day with fatal stab wounds to her neck.

After their investigation, the San Antonio Police arrested Trevino and a grand jury indicted him on one count of intentional murder and attempt to commit aggravated sexual assault. At trial, Trevino's cousin Gonzalez testified against him. Gonzalez testified that the men returned to the car with blood on their shirts discussing the murder, with Trevino bragging about how he learned to kill in prison. With this evidence, the jury found Trevino guilty and was left to decide on an appropriate punishment. They determined that Trevino intended to kill Linda and was likely to commit such violent acts in the future. At the jury's suggestion, the trial court sentenced Trevino to death.

Through both the punishment phase of the trial and the first state habeas corpus proceeding, Trevino's attorney did not investigate or present any mitigating evidence that could have reduced Trevino's sentence. During the federal habeas proceeding that followed, Trevino's attorney withdrew and the court appointed new counsel. Trevino's new counsel undertook his own investigation and discovered several pieces of evidence that the jury could have found relevant during the punishment phase of the trial.

Trevino returned to state court and filed a second habeas corpus application on the basis that his first attorney had a duty to investigate and present the mitigating evidence. Since the attorney failed to do so, Trevino claimed that his Sixth Amendment right to a competent attorney had been denied. The state court denied his application, stating that Trevino should have presented the ineffective assistance of counsel claim during the first state habeas proceeding. Trevino returned to the federal district court to reassert this claim, but that court also denied his claim because it was never properly raised in state court. The district court went on to explain that the allegedly ineffective performance of his first attorney during state habeas proceedings did not excuse his failure to present an ineffective assistance of counsel claim during those proceedings. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision and Trevino appealed further. The Supreme Court granted certiorari limited to the question below.


Can the ineffective assistance of a criminal defendant's counsel during state habeas proceedings excuse his failure to properly claim ineffective assistance earlier in the proceedings?

Media for Trevino v. Thaler

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 2013 in Trevino v. Thaler

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 28, 2013 in Trevino v. Thaler

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 11-10189, Trevino versus Thaler which Justice Kennedy will announce.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In this opinion for the Court as the Chief Justice indicates by -- written by Justice Breyer, the bench announcement is as follows.

Last year, in Martinez versus Ryan, the Court was faced with an Arizona prisoner who asserted that his trial lawyer provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, but before he came to the federal court seeking habeas release – relief on that claim, the prisoner had procedurally defaulted that claim in the state court.

Under Arizona state law, he was forbidden to raise the claim on direct repeal.

The state instead required him to raise a claim in a state habeas proceeding.

But the petitioner had failed to do so.

This was because he said of his lawyers default.

So, under the rule that this Court had earlier said out in Coleman versus Thompson, the federal courts could not consider the merits or the petitioner's ineffective trial-counsel claim because that default took place during his first state habeas proceeding, rather than on state direct review.

But remember, that in the Martinez case in Arizona procedural rule prevented him from raising the inadequate trial-counsel claim on direct review.

It required the prisoner to raise the claim of trial ineffectiveness in his state habeas proceedings.

So on Martinez we reasoned that a narrow exception to the Coleman rule is necessary.

Otherwise, the prisoner might be deprived of any review at all of his ineffective assistance of trial-counsel claim.

And so, we decided that in Arizona a procedural default would not bar a federal habeas court from hearing the prisoner's substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if in the State's initial collateral review proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that initial collateral review proceeding was ineffective.

In the case decided today, we are faced with the prisoner from Texas.

Like the prisoner in Martinez, he asserts that his trial lawyer provided ineffective assistance.

And like the prisoner in Martinez, he has procedurally defaulted that claim.

And like the prisoner in Martinez, this prisoner asserts that his procedural default is due to the ineffectiveness of his initial state habeas lawyer.

But here at Texas, unlike Arizona, does not require prisoners to race ineffective assistance of trial-counsel claims on state collateral review, rather on its face, Texas law permits prisoners to bring such claims on direct review and we must decide whether this difference matters.

We conclude that it does not.

As explained in detail in today's opinion, the Court concludes that the Texas system does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal.

As a practical matter, a typical defendant will not be able to race such a claim in Texas into state collateral review proceedings.

And so, we conclude that the law should treat the Arizona and Texas systems similarly.

The Martinez exception applied to the Arizona system should also apply in Texas.

We vacate the Fifth Circuit's judgment to the contrary and remand the case before the proceedings.

Those proceedings can determine, in the first instance, where the Trevino's trial counsel ineffectiveness claim is substantial and whether he was provided ineffective assistance in his initial state habeas proceeding.

The Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which he is joined by Justice Alito.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which he is joined by Justice Thomas.