A Fort Worth man who fatally shot a 5-year-old girl and her grandmother could avoid being put to death if the U.S. Supreme Court decides he had inadequate legal advice in his appeal.
The convicted murderer, Erick Davila, argued at trial that he wasn’t trying to kill the pair — he was aiming for someone else — and the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in the case, called Davila v. Davis. The case centers on whether Davila’s first appeals defense attorney was ineffective for not challenging a jury instruction on the intent of his actions.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have wide-ranging implications for criminal appeals, giving defendants an additional option for recourse if they think improper jury instructions could change the verdicts in their cases.
Right now, federal courts are generally barred from reviewing a defendant’s claim of improper procedures at the state level. A favorable ruling for Davila would slightly expand the appeals process in certain instances.
Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued against granting Davila an additional appeal, saying that ruling in the man’s favor would open up federal courts to thousands of last-ditch appeals cases that lack substantial merit.
“It is not a good use of judicial resources,” Keller told justices, citing that federal appeals courts heard 3,800 additional cases after a 2012 court decision granted a specific exception for federal courts to hear petitions from some state-level post-conviction courts. None of the appeals was successful, Keller said.
Houston attorney Seth Kretzer argued in favor of Davila, and said the standard for an additional appeal would remain high if the court ruled in his client’s favor.
“The door has been open . . . for five years,” Kretzer said. “There has not been an inundation in the court.”
Justice Stephen Breyer sounded unconvinced by the arguments of Keller and Krezter; he repeatedly asked both whether there was empirical evidence of courts being overrun with flimsy appeals since the 2012 ruling. Neither had a direct answer.
If the court rules in Davila’s favor, he will not be released from prison or taken off death row but he will get an additional review of his case. The review could get him off death row if it were deemed that he had no intention of killing multiple people but instead was targeting only Jerry Stevenson, a rival gang member who was not shot by Davila as he stood outside the Village Creek Town Homes in East Fort Worth.
Davila’s main defense during his trial was that he had no intention of killing multiple people and instead accidentally shot two different people while trying to kill a supposed gang member. The jury asked the judge when considering the death penalty charge if they were supposed to determine whether Davila had intended to kill the 5-year-old and her grandmother or had intended to kill a different person and took the lives of two people in the process.
Beyond the jury instruction, there’s other evidence that could keep Davila on death row even if the Supreme Court rules in his favor. Fort Worth police said Davila’s confession was enough evidence to determine that he wanted to kill multiple people.
“I was trying to get the guys on the porch, and I was trying to get” Jerry Stevenson, Davila said in his statement to police.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed briefs in support of Davila, while 30 state attorneys general filed a brief in support of Texas.
The court is expected to render a decision before the end of June, when the current term ends.
Keller argued that sufficient checks already exist for people like Davila to have their cases heard on the merits, and he referred to the checks as an “actual innocence gateway.”
Breyer interrupted him. “Actual innocence means he was actually innocent,” Breyer said.
“Well, or actually innocent of the death penalty,” Keller replied.
“Well, that’s an interesting open question,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, implying that Keller was arguing about the merits of the death penalty.
“For a different day,” Keller said, sparking laughter around the court.