US Supreme Court says inmates requesting transportation to acquire evidence must prove evidence is admissible
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US Supreme Court says inmates requesting transportation to acquire evidence must prove evidence is admissible

The US Supreme Court Tuesday ruled in a 5-4 decision that federal courts may not order states to transport inmates to find new evidence without first deciding of any resulting evidence would be admissible in court.

In 1993 Raymond Twyford was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death by an Ohio jury. Twyford was abused as a child and attempted suicide at age 13, due to which at least 20 pieces of bullet shrapnel remained in his brain. Twyford claimed this injury, which made him “unable to make rational and voluntary choices”, was not adequately represented at trial. He moved for unsuccessful state post-conviction relief and then, in 2003, for federal habeas corpus relief. A few claims as part of the latter, including ineffective assistance of counsel claims, were allowed to proceed.

Twyford then moved Ohio prison authorities be ordered to transport him to a medical facility for neurological testing “necessary for the investigation, presentation and development of claims” in light of his childhood abuse and self-inflicted head injury, while urging the court to disregard the question of admissibility. The District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted his motion under 28 U. S. C. §1651(a), stating it was unnecessary to consider admissibility. The state of Ohio appeal the motion’s granting to the Supreme Court.

§1651(a) authorizes federal courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” According to Ohio, the transportation order was not “necessary or appropriate in aid of” the District Court’s jurisdiction since Twyford did not show that the evidence would be admissible in his federal habeas case.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing on behalf of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, agreed with Ohio’s argument. Roberts found the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) restricted federal courts’ powers to grant habeas relief and consider new evidence with a view to “promote the finality of state convictions”. If a prisoner was unable to develop a factual claim in the state court, a federal court could admit new evidence but only if the prisoner could show the evidence would clearly mean no conviction would have resulted. Allowing a writ resulting in inadmissible evidence would needlessly prolong the case.

Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented, stating the Court of Appeals did not have jurisdiction to hear this interlocutory appeal in the first place. Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate dissent on similar grounds.