Published on: Monday, December 6, 2021

Two Arizona men are sitting in their prison cells counting the days until the state will execute them. They will be given a choice between lethal injection or a gas chamber (article available here).

David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones have different life stories, but one thing in common: They likely wouldn't be sitting on death row if their court-appointed criminal defense lawyers had not botched their cases to a degree that federal courts have found to be unconstitutional.

Now, their fate — and whether those findings will offer them a reprieve — lies with the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices will weigh this week whether the high court's 2012 decision in Martinez v. Ryan allows the prisoners to use new evidence to support their ineffective counsel claims in federal court, despite a federal law barring such a move.

Under the Constitution, inmates can challenge their detention or sentence on constitutional grounds through the habeas corpus process, where they can ask a federal court to release them or order a new trial.

But the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 says only evidence already produced in state court proceedings can be used. The state of Arizona, which petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari in January, asked the justices to bar Ramirez and Jones from using evidence in federal court that the men say could potentially save their lives.

On Wednesday, the justices will hear Ramirez's and Jones's cases jointly, and they will later decide whether the Supreme Court's ruling in Martinez, which created a narrow window to allow evidence produced outside the state ­court record to be used in habeas proceedings, applies to them.