A badly damaged Texas man who was sentenced to death for his part in a San Antonio-area gang rape and murder will get a second chance at mercy, under a divided Supreme Court ruling Tuesday.
Born to an alcoholic mother and allegedly abused as a child, Carlos Trevino won another opportunity to raise a claim that his first trial attorneys failed him, in part, because they didn’t illuminate his upbringing. The revived case eventually might save the life of the man who once joined a prison gang called Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, or Brotherhood of Latino Gunmen. It also might help other Texas inmates in similar straits.
“The Texas procedural system, as a matter of its structure, design and operation, does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.
The court’s 5-4 decision leaves to other judges the eventual determination of whether Trevino received effective legal assistance during and after his original 1997 trial. On its face, the ruling was technical, allowing federal courts to consider some claims not raised in state court.
But the Supreme Court’s reasoning likewise might help inmates elsewhere. Twenty-five states – including Kentucky, Kansas, South Carolina and Idaho – declared in a brief that thousands of cases may be affected nationwide and that many states might have to start providing attorneys to inmates for appellate reviews.
“The questions raised by this (ruling) are as endless as will be the state-by-state litigation it takes to work them out,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in dissent.
At least one other Texas death row inmate – Anthony Cardell Haynes, who was convicted of killing a Houston policeman in 1998 – already has raised an argument similar to Trevino’s.
The horrific facts behind the decision issued Tuesday date to June 9, 1996. Trevino was drinking with several friends when they encountered, during a beer run, a 15-year-old girl named Linda Salinas, who knew one of the men. An unusually vivid Supreme Court brief filed by Texas Solicitor General Jonathan F. Mitchell detailed what authorities say happened next.
“Trevino and his friends drove Salinas to a park; gang-raped her . . . severed her carotid artery by stabbing her in the neck and left her to bleed to death in a creekside ditch,” Mitchell wrote, adding that these and other graphic details “are relevant” to understanding the state’s case.
Other details, though, never reached the jurors, who convicted and sentenced Trevino, who’s now 39.
Trevino’s mother was an “emotionally unstable, physically abusive alcoholic,” according to later court proceedings. He had fetal alcohol syndrome and suffered “numerous serious head injuries as a child for which he received little or no medical care,” according to the court.
The 15-page ruling Tuesday covers prisoners who want to raise ineffective assistance-of-counsel arguments in federal court even if they failed to raise similar arguments in their earlier state appeals. Usually, court procedural rules block such arguments as having been defaulted.
The court’s majority, though, concluded Tuesday that tight deadlines and other Texas court procedures make it “nearly impossible” for inmates to raise all their arguments on state appeal. For instance, the court noted that the trial transcript wasn’t available until seven months after Trevino’s trial concluded, complicating the initial appellate attorney’s work.