From [HERE] The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a case in which the Texas courts decided a death-row prisoner’s appeal by adopting the prosecution’s fact findings and legal arguments word-for-word without providing the defendant’s lawyer any opportunity to respond. In a May 20, 2019 ruling, the Court without comment denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed by Ray Freeney, thereby permitting the Harris County prisoner’s conviction and death sentence to stand. The decision was the latest in a series of cases in which the Court has refused to take up the issue of state-court rulings that are verbatim copies of proposed orders written entirely by the prosecution. In June 2018, researchers at the University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Center exposed the systemic rubberstamping of prosecutors’ pleadings in Harris County capital cases. The researchers found that county judges had adopted prosecutors’ proposed findings of fact verbatim in 96% of 191 capital cases in which factual issues had been contested. Harris County has executed 129 men and women, more than double the number executed in any other county in the United States and more than have been executed in any state in the country other than Texas.
In a Washington Post op-ed, columnist Radley Balko said Freeney’s case not only raises questions about the practice of judges rubberstamping prosecutorial findings, but also “test[s] the absurd, outer limits of AEDPA’s deference to state courts.” AEDPA is the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the habeas corpus amendments passed by Congress in 1996. Those amendments have significantly reduced federal courts’ ability to review and redress violations of a state defendant’s right to a fair trial and sentencing by requiring federal judges to give a high level of deference to state court findings. Balko explains, “to get a federal court to review a state court’s ruling, a defendant must show not only that the state court (and the state courts that upheld the ruling) were wrong, but that the prevailing ruling was either ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,’ or an ‘unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.’ Put plainly, you must convince the federal courts not only that the state courts were wrong, but also that they were unreasonably wrong.”
When Ray Freeney’s case came before Texas District Court Judge Renee Magee, his appeal lawyers sought a new sentencing hearing because his trial lawyers had failed to investigate and present to the jury evidence that Freeney suffered from mental illness and had been the victim of chronic child abuse. Judge Magee, who had spent 19 years as a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, asked for briefs, and received 204 proposed findings of fact from the prosecution, based on over 800 pages of testimony. The next day, she adopted the factfinding verbatim. Freeney’s defense attorneys were never given an opportunity to respond, or to submit their own brief containing new evidence to support their claim that his trial attorneys had provided inadequate counsel. The University of Texas study has demonstrated that “rubberstamping” of prosecutors’ proposed orders is common in Harris County, particularly in cases in which the judge was a former county prosecutor. But Feeney’s case stood out even more in that Judge Magee provided his lawyers no opportunity to respond to the prosecution’s proposed disposition of the case. “When you have such egregious inattention to facts and lack of stewardship of constitutional rights as we’ve seen in Harris County,” Balko said, “the entire system begins to look like a farce.”
Under AEDPA, rubberstamped findings are routinely treated with the same level of deference as findings that judges wrote themselves. Balko explains that, “under the controlling case law for the [Texas federal courts], ‘a full and fair hearing is not a precondition to presumption of correctness to state habeas court findings of fact.’” “The message sent to state judges by the Fifth Circuit in Mr. Freeney’s case was clear,” says Richard Bourke, one of Freeney’s attorneys. “You don’t need to consider the defense’s legal arguments. You don’t need to consider the defense’s evidence. You don’t even need to wait until the defense has presented either. You can just rubber stamp the state’s brief. And you needn’t worry about the Fifth Circuit overruling you.”
Rubberstamping “isn’t even all that uncommon. In some parts of the country, it’s routine,” Balko said. In several 2016 articles for The Marshall Project, Andrew Cohen noted court decisions “ghostwritten” by prosecutors in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. On May 16, 2018, Texas executed Juan Castillo after a Bexar County judge denied him an evidentiary hearing on his claim that prosecutors had presented false testimony to secure his conviction. The judge adopted the prosecution's proposed findings and order verbatim—changing only the signature line on the order—without permitting Castillo’s lawyers to submit proposed findings or to respond to the prosecution’s submission. Alabama attempted to execute Doyle Hamm in February 2018 after state courts had adopted word-for-word an 89-page order written by the state attorney general’s office one business day after receiving the prosecution’s proposed order, without removing the word “proposed” from the title of the order.