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A death row lawyer makes mistakes. Should his client pay the price?

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Joseph Gamboa, a Texas death row inmate, claims his court-appointed attorney deprived him of the opportunity to challenge his murder conviction in federal court. Among other things, according to court records, the lawyer ignored evidence provided by Mr. Gamboa, filed a copy-and-paste habeas corpus petition that still bore the name of a previous client and submitted a brief admitting that his customer had to lose.

The Supreme Court is ready to consider Friday, if Mr. Gamboa’s case is to be heard. If his attorney hadn’t filed anything and just given up on him, he most likely would have had another chance to make his case.

The question posed in Mr. Gamboa’s appeal is whether worthless legal work requires the same response.

In a Supreme Court brief, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said a client must “bear the cost of their federal prosecutor’s negligence.” This is indeed the general rule, even if some people questioned whether it makes sense when the lawyer was appointed by a judge rather than hired by a client.

Mr. Gamboa was convicted and sentenced to death in 2007 for two murders during a San Antonio bar robbery. He maintains his innocence.

The attorney, John J. Ritenour Jr., visited his client once before filing the habeas petition. Mr. Gamboa brought documents to the meeting that appeared to show that prosecutors had withheld evidence suggesting that another man had committed the killings, a potentially powerful claim.

Mr. Ritenour did not take the documents. Instead, Mr. Gamboa said in a declaration of honor“Mr. Ritenour told me that he had read the state court filing in my case and that he believed I was guilty.

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Nearly a year later, Mr. Ritenour filed the motion, which was largely modeled on an earlier one, repeating typographical and grammatical errors. It still bore the name of another customer, Obie Weathers. It was not signed by Mr Gamboa, although this was a legal requirement, and it did not contain any of the arguments Mr Gamboa had asked him to develop.

After the state’s lawyers made short work of the motion, Mr. Ritenour filed an extraordinary response that amounted to a surrender.

“After considerable consideration and consideration,” he wrote, “Petitioner admits that his argument regarding each of his claims has been precluded under currently existing and adversely decided precedent.” »

Mr. Ritenour did not respond to requests for comment on claims in Mr. Gamboa’s brief to the Supreme Court, including that he had abandoned his client. But he filed a declaration of honor in 2016 which seemed to concede the key points.

“I did not consult Mr. Gamboa on the issues I addressed and did not include in the petition, nor on the content of the response,” he wrote. “Because I have found no non-frivolous way to raise issues potentially requiring evidence, I have made another decision not to involve a second attorney, nor hire an investigator or other expert. Again, I understand that others can and do challenge this judgment.

His own investigation was limited. Shortly after being appointed by a federal judge, he had a 10-minute phone call with a lawyer who had represented Mr. Gamboa in state court.

“It was the only investigation into this matter ever carried out by Ritenour,” according to Mr Gamboa’s petition request review from the Supreme Court.

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Joseph Gamboa said his court-appointed lawyer told him he believed Mr. Gamboa was guilty.Credit…KSAT-TV

Court records show that Mr. Ritenour was going through difficult times while handling Mr. Gamboa’s case, including an illness that required hospitalization and care for his wife, who was battling cancer. But he did not hire an investigator, retain expert witnesses or bring in other lawyers.

In his affidavit, he said he was aware that this violated “federal standards for habeas attorneys in a death penalty case.”

A law from 1996, the Anti-terrorism law and effective death penalty, impose strict limits on challenges to state death sentences in federal court. But this gave a condemned man to death, like Justice Elena Kagan wrote in 2020 for seven members of the Supreme Court, “a fair opportunity to seek federal habeas upon his conviction.”

After new lawyers agreed to represent Mr. Gamboa, they requested permission to file another motion — a second bite at the apple that is usually prohibited. The trial judge and the court of appeal rejected the request.

“As troubling as Gamboa’s allegations of abandonment of counsel may be,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit wrote in an unsigned noticeMr. Ritenour had ruined his client’s chance in Federal Court.

Mr. Gamboa would have been better off if Mr. Ritenour had done nothing. In a pair of decisions, in 2010 And 2012The Supreme Court allowed death row inmates whose attorneys had completely missed deadlines to continue their attempts to file late motions.

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In urging the Supreme Court to deny review, Mr. Paxton wrote that Mr. Ritenour “continuously and competently represented Gamboa” and did not, like the lawyers in previous cases, commit a “disappearing act.” .

Mr. Gamboa’s new lawyers questioned this statement.

“In the United States,” they wrote, “life should not be so cheap that a man can be executed because his court-appointed lawyer abandoned him.” »

In his affidavit, Mr. Ritenour said that new lawyers had asked him to “eventually confess to having performed poorly.”

But “upon reflection,” he wrote, “I concluded that I could not do this in good conscience. » Perhaps he meant “in good conscience”, but that is not what he wrote.