Trevino v. Thaler

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LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Trevino v. Thaler.

Carlos Trevino was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by a Texas jury in 1997. During sentencing, Trevino’s state-appointed trial counsel failed to introduce potentially mitigating evidence of Trevino’s history of extreme childhood abuse and neglect, which might have persuaded the jury to sentence him to life in prison instead of death. His state-appointed habeas corpus counsel also failed to uncover evidence of Trevino’s background, and therefore failed to realize that he might have a colorable ineffective assistance of counsel claim. This failure to assert the claim barred raising the claim on federal habeas corpus review. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan, No. 10-1001, slip op. at 15 (March 20, 2012), had recognized a narrow exception to the procedural default rule, whereby ineffective assistance of counsel in an initial-review collateral proceeding—here, the state habeas proceeding—may excuse such a default. In Martinez, Arizona made state habeas proceedings the exclusive forum for addressing ineffective assistance of counsel claims.Trevino argues that the Martinez exception should apply here because this case implicates the same equitable considerations in post-conviction systems similar to Arizona’s. In response, Rick Thaler, Director of the Correctional Institutions Division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, contends that Texas’s post-conviction system already provides fair opportunity for such claims to be heard, both in state habeas proceedings and on direct appeal, and thus the Martinez fairness concerns do not apply. This decision may affect the legitimacy of the state post-conviction process and the balance of victims’ rights and the rights of capital inmates in the post-conviction setting.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the U.S. Supreme Court should grant certiorari, vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and remand the case to that court for consideration of Trevino’s argument under Martinez v. Ryan?

Does the exception to the procedural default doctrine rule laid out in Martinez v. Ryan apply to defendants who bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims for the first time in collateral proceedings in Texas courts?


In 1996, a Texas District Court in Bexar County convicted Petitioner Trevino of capital murder in connection with a gang rape and killing of a 15-year-old girl, and sentenced him to death. After his conviction and sentencing, pursuant to Texas procedure, Trevino simultaneously filed a direct appeal and a state habeas corpus application The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence. Because Trevino did not assert any claims not asserted on direct appeal, the state habeas court adopted the findings of the Court of Criminal Appeals and dismissed his habeas application.

In 2002, Trevino filed his first federal habeas corpus petition, and the court granted him a stay of proceedings because he had not exhausted all of his claims in state court. Trevino, now represented by different counsel, filed a second state habeas corpus application based on mitigating information his new counsel discovered about Trevino’s past. Trevino could have presented this evidence to the jury in the sentencing phase of his trial, to speak to his mental culpability and weigh against the imposition of the death penalty. As a result, he claimed ineffective assistance by his previous counsel for failing to adequately investigate and present this mitigating evidence during trial. He alleged that he had not raised this claim during his initial state habeas proceeding because his habeas counsel was also ineffective. The Texas court held that because Trevino failed to raise his ineffectiveness claim during his first habeas proceeding, regardless of the reason, he was now procedurally barred from asserting the claim pursuant to a Texas writ-abuse statute.

In 2008, Trevino amended his federal habeas corpus petition, asserting, among others, a claim pursuant to Wiggins v. Smith, that his counsel had been ineffective. The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas held that this claim was procedurally barred for the same reasons as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stated and denied relief. . The District Court also denied a certificate of appealability on the Wiggins claim on the ground that no reasonable jurist could find that there was a genuine issue of law. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s treatment of this claim.

Trevino petitioned for a rehearing en banc by the Fifth Circuit pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on another habeas procedural case, Martinez v. Ryan, but the Fifth Circuit denied the petition. The Supreme Court decided Martineztwo months later, holding that when state procedural law requires that the first opportunity to raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim be in a collateral review, or habeas corpus, proceeding, then a defendant may use the ineffective assistance of a counsel to excuse a failure to meet procedural requirements. Trevino petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, but while the petition was pending, the Fifth Circuit decided Ibarra v. Thaler, which distinguished Martinez, noting that Texas procedures prefer, but do not require such claims to be brought in a habeas proceeding. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case on the limited question of the applicability of Martinez in Texas habeas proceedings.


Federalism Tensions

Trevino argues that because the state made a deliberate choice to direct ineffective assistance of counsel claims to a habeas corpus proceeding, rather than direct appeal, the federal court should respect the state’s choice by treating collateral review as direct review for the purposes of excusing procedural default.

Thaler contends that a central purpose of procedural default is to insulate state courts from second-guessing by the federal courts, thereby protecting the legitimacy of the state post-conviction process. If the federal court can circumvent state procedure in this way, it would rob the state courts of a fair opportunity to correct errors in their own proceedings.

Undermining Procedural Purpose

Trevino claims that the purpose of Texas’s procedural rules is to direct certain types of claims into the judicial channel where they can be most fairly and efficiently resolved—in this case, in habeas corpus proceedings. But whereas ineffective assistance of appeals counsel can excuse procedural default, ineffective assistance of habeas counsel cannot. Trevino argues that prisoners who wait to bring their ineffective assistance of counsel claims in a state habeas proceeding are acting in conformity with state procedure, so they should not be procedurally barred from pursuing those claims. Trevino argues that such a rule would encourage prisoners to do just what the state’s choice sought to prevent: bringing ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims on direct appeal.

In response, Thaler asserts that Texas has not made such a choice to relegate ineffective assistance of counsel claims to habeas proceedings. He describes the purposes of procedural default differently, contending that the procedural bar rule manages the caseload and costs of the state courts by preventing the relitigation of claims, as codified by the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Additionally, Thaler argues that the procedural default doctrine embodies a promise of finality for the state court system and for victims’ families.

Fundamental Fairness: Rights of Capital Inmates Versus Rights of the Victims

Trevino insists that if federal courts could not consider ineffective assistance of counsel claims due to procedural default in state court, some meritorious claims would never receive judicial review. Such a result would offend fundamental notions of fairness for capital inmates. Thaler counters that the Texas post-conviction system provides fair opportunities to review ineffective assistance of counsel claims at both the state and federal levels: for instance, a prisoner could make a motion for new trial on direct appeal, which would also exhaust the claim for the purposes of subsequent federal habeas review. However, Trevino and the capital punishment clinics of two Texas law schools argue that the short timeline to make a motion for new trial is insufficient to allow adequate development of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, which often requires extensive research; thus, the motion does not constitute a viable alternative.

On the other end of the scale sits the right of victims to an expedient and final resolution of a capital case. The families of Trevino’s victim, Linda Salinas, and other crime victims assert that the most important interest to take into account, apart from those of the accused and the state, is the interest of victims in seeing justice done. The families contend that procedural rules, like the exception Trevino urges, delay the timely resolution of such cases and exacerbate the harm to victims by denying emotional closure. The families argue that without considering victims’ interests, any appearance of fairness in the post-conviction process would be illusory.


In Martinez v. Ryan, the U.S. Supreme Court held that due to equitable considerations, when state procedural law requires that ineffective assistance of counsel claims be raised initially in a habeas corpus proceeding and not on direct appeal, a defendant will not be procedurally barred from raising those claims if the counsel’s assistance was ineffective during the habeas proceeding. In Ibarra v. Thaler, the Fifth Circuit held that Martinez did not apply to Texas cases, because Texas procedure merely expresses a preference that defendants raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims during habeas proceedings. Trevino argues that Martinez applies to Texas procedure, and he states that his ineffective assistance of counsel claim is sufficiently substantial to excuse his procedural default. Thaler disagrees, arguing that Martinez is inapplicable here because the Arizona procedure there at issue is distinguishable from Texas procedure. Thaler asserts further that even if Martinez is applicable to Texas, Trevino’s procedural default should still not be excused.

Applicability of Martinez v. Ryan

Trevino argues that Martinez is directly applicable to his case, because like Arizona, Texas procedures deliberately channel ineffective assistance of counsel claims to collateral proceedings, particularly for death-sentenced defendants. In support, he points out that Texas precedent overwhelmingly indicates that defendants should not bring an ineffectiveness claim on direct appeal, which is supposed to focus on record-based claims, not claims based on off-the-record facts. Further, Trevino argues that Texas has instituted a “dual track” system for reviews of death-sentenced defendants, which indicates that such defendants should bring ineffectiveness claims in habeas proceedings, and should bring record-based claims on direct appeal.

Thaler disagrees, arguing instead that Arizona and Texas are starkly different in their approaches. He points out that Texas defendants are afforded the ability to bring their ineffectiveness claims on direct appeal by a motion for new trial. Though Texas uses a dual-track system for review of death penalty cases, Thaler asserts that there is no instruction as to which claims may be brought in which proceeding, and instead the bar guidelines instruct attorneys to bring all prudent claims in each court.

Trevino counters that the motion for new trial mechanism is not a practical solution for defendants because of the strict time pressures required for filing such a motion. He argues that these time restrictions make it nearly impossible for a defendant to adequately develop an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. In sum, Trevino argues that because collateral proceedings are the first real opportunity for a defendant to assert an ineffectiveness claim, attorney incompetence in that proceeding should not be allowed to cause a procedural default.

Thaler points out that Texas automatically provides each defendant with a new attorney on appeal in order to enable him or her to bring an ineffectiveness claim in the appellate court. Further, Thaler argues that though there are time restraints, defendants have extension tools available to them such as a continuance of proceedings. He argues that because Texas courts afford defendants an adequate and full opportunity to raise ineffectiveness claims on direct appeal, the equitable considerations raised by the Arizona system are not present in Texas.

Substantiality of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Trevino asserts that his case meets the Martinez requirement laid that a defendant seeking to cure a procedural defect must show that he has a substantial ineffectiveness claim. Trevino points out that his attorney in the initial state habeas proceeding failed to conduct any sort of investigation into the effectiveness of his previous counsel or into any potential mitigating factors that would be relevant. He points out that the only mitigating evidence presented at his trial was the testimony of his aunt who stated that he was a generally good person.

Thaler disagrees, maintaining that Trevino’s ineffectiveness claim is without merit. He argues that far from failing to investigate Trevino’s past, Trevino’s counsel hired a private investigator and searched for family members to testify as to the way that he grew up. Thaler asserts further that only one witness testified as to mitigating evidence because Trevino was not cooperative and did not provide his counsel with any names of individuals who could help. In addition, Thaler argues that to the extent that new evidence is now offered, it is inconsistent with the defense’s theory of mitigation presented at trial and would not have been helpful at the time.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will define the scope of the Martinez exception to procedural default in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Trevino argues that the Martinez exception should apply here because of Texas’s stated preference for state habeas proceedings as the forum for ineffective assistance of counsel claims. He claims that a contrary result would undermine procedural purpose by encouraging litigants to pursue such claims on direct review, rather than through the state-preferred route of a habeas proceeding. In response, Thaler contends that Texas’s post-conviction system already provides adequate opportunity to vindicate such claims, unlike Arizona’s system in Martinez, and thus presents no deficiency for the Martinez exception to cure. Thaler also argues that extending the Martinez exception would impinge on states’ interests in managing their own caseloads and post-conviction systems. This decision will impact the finality of state court judgments in the context of the federal system, and will help to strike the proper balance between the rights of capital inmates and the rights of their victims in post-conviction proceedings.


Edited by 


The authors would like to thank former Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions Frank Wagner for his assistance in editing this preview.

Additional Resources 

Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal: Supreme Court to Hear New Case on Competence in Habeas Representation (Oct. 30, 2012).

Wex, Habeas Corpus.