Davila v. Davis

On the 24th of April, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin to hear the arguments of a case in which a Texas man received the death penalty. This is not the Hollywood tale one might expect of an inherently high profile capital punishment case that reaches the highest court in the land. Nor does the case arouse the kind of Capote-esque intrigue that led to In Cold Blood. After all, if one were to attempt to capture the case in a phase it would be: In Cold Review of the Corrigibility of Habeas Appellate Counsel Incompetence - not quite as catchy. 

This case isn’t for the faint-hearted. That is not to say that Davila’s (plaintiff) heinous crime is any less worthy of examination than that infamous crime committed in the “out there” of Kansas. What I mean is that this case is not especially conducive to media attention. After all, the Supreme Court’s brief is not so amenable to engrossing narrative; frankly, it’s a judicial mess. I’ll endeavor to make it as clear as possible, which will likely result in a sort of resigned haziness.

What Actually Happened?

On a Saturday in April 2008, Davila arrived at the house of an apparent rival gang member. The house in question was hosting a child’s birthday party. Davila proceeded to launch a volley of rounds from a semi-automatic rifle into the crowded porch and front room. In the process, Davila murdered a five-year-old girl and her grandmother, in addition to injuring several other women and children. At trial, a jury found Davila guilty of a capital crime and sentenced him to death.

What is the Issue for the Supreme Court?

According to the brief of the petitioner put to the Supreme Court by Davila, there are two questions for review.

  1. Does the precedent established in Martinez v. Ryan (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler (2013) apply to Davila? Before 2012, a procedural default period applied to any claim of trial counsel ineffectiveness. Basically, if a claim isn’t made in a timely fashion, it becomes inadmissible. The precedents established by the Supreme Court in the cases mentioned above ensured that claims of ineffective state habeas counsel are substantial enough to overcome procedural default. However, Davila’s claim of ineffective counsel was not made by trial counsel, nor by his first appellate (appeals) counsel, but by a subsequent appellate counsel in a federal court. Therefore, the Supreme Court is deciding whether ineffective appellate counsel claims are subject to the same precedents established for trial counsel, and if such claims overcome procedural default.
  2. In Hurst v. Florida (2016), the Supreme Court decided that a Florida death sentence handed down by a judge on recommendation by the jury was unconstitutional. Justice Sonia Sotomayer, in writing the court’s opinion, stated that: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death...a jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” Davila’s lawyers ask the Supreme Court if Hurst V. Florida sheds new light on Texas’ requirements for a death sentence to be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

If either of these arguments finds support in the Supreme Court it could mean Davila’s eligibility for a new trial in which a death sentence was not applicable.

What Will Both Sides Argue?

Erick Daniel Devila: Davila will claim that during the trial, an incorrect instruction was given to the jury in relation to his intent. An objection was made, but overruled. During the initial-review and appeal, Davila’s appellate lawyer failed to raise the issue. It wasn’t until a federal hearing that Davila’s new appellate lawyer made the claim that the initial appellate lawyer was ineffective, but this claim was inadmissible because the procedural default period had elapsed. Devila will claim that Martinez v. Ryan should apply to his appellate counsel’s ineffectiveness and that he is improperly on death row. 

Davila’s legal team will argue that the right to effective appellate counsel is “critically important,” which is to say, of equal importance to trial counsel. They will also seek to argue that the opportunities for defendants to claim ineffective appellate counsel on direct appeal are “ill equipped” as they hinge on the assistance of counsel itself. Finally, Davila will argue that if Martinez does not apply to appellate ineffectiveness claims, then the Prisoner would likely have very little opportunity for further review.

However, these claims rest on the ability of Davila to argue that he didn’t intend to kill multiple people. Texas law defines the charge of capital murder as “murder [of] more than one person … during the same criminal transaction.” (Tex Penal Code 19.03 (a) (7)). “Murder,” is defined as “intentionally or knowingly caus(ing) the death of an individual.” Without this intention, the case would be ineligible for a capital murder conviction, and subsequently, the death penalty. A death penalty in this case requires that Davila must have knowingly and intentionally killed multiple people.

Lorie Davis, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division: In the brief for the respondent, Texas Attorney General Paxton argues that M v. R does not apply to Davila’s case, as it consists of only a narrow qualifier to a previous precedent. Paxton will use Coleman v. Thompson (1991) to argue that counsel in the Federal courts has no jurisdiction to argue that Davila’s appellate counsel was ineffective because, whether or not the appellate counsel was ineffective, the errors made were made at a State level. 

The respondent will argue that there was no original trial error and the claim that the judge gave incorrect instruction is meritless. The instruction given by the judge to the jury stated that they had to establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Davila, intentionally or knowingly, caused the death of individuals Queshawn Stevenson and Annette Stevenson. 

Paxton cites Davila’s confession after arrest in which he said “I was trying to get the guys on the porch, and I was trying to get the fat dude [Jerry Stevenson].” Paxton thus argues that whether he intentionally killed the specific individuals is irrelevant because the petitioner (Davila) already confessed to the intention of wanting to kill multiple individuals. Considering the definitions above, this would find the defendant guilty of the offense of capital murder. His confessions, Paxton will argue, would nullify Davila’s claim that the judge gave incorrect instruction, and uphold the finding of capital murder - thus, the death penalty.

How Could the Plaintiff Win?

The plaintiff could win by successfully persuading the court that the right to effective appellate counsel is equal in importance to the right to effective trial counsel. From this position it might be possible for the court to grant Davila a new trial.  

How Could the Defendant Win?

The defendant could win by establishing that the right to effective appellate counsel is not equivalent to that of trial counsel. However, what the defendant will undoubtedly focus on will be the fallaciousness of the original claim that there was in fact any ineffectiveness of counsel because there is no grounds to consider the plaintiff for any other crime than that of capital murder.

Who Will Win? 

Considering the court’s recent history of precedent in this area, it would not be unexpected for the court to decide that the right to claim ineffectiveness of appellate counsel is equal to that of trial counsel. The setting of this precedent would be would be a good step forward for opponents of capital punishment, or at least those in favor of the absolute assurance of the legal veracity of such a sentence. However, the justices may find themselves unable to publish a favorable opinion in this regard due to Davila’s clear deficiencies throughout the rest of the case. It may well be a case of the right target, but the wrong arrow. What is clear is that the intrigue permeating from this case will find itself the heart of the justice’s vacillations.