JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For more than a decade, Robert Ryan has been at the center of debate over perceived inadequacies of the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel.
The office represents indigent death-row inmates in state post-conviction proceedings. It was created in 2000 to lift the burden off counties to pay for continuing death row appeals.
Complaints about the office date back at least to 2005.
In 2010, 15 death row inmates sued the state, arguing the office — and Ryan — failed to provide competent counsel during their appeals.
Glen Swartzfager, director of the Office of Capital Post Conviction Counsel since 2008, has acknowledged in court papers that some inmates' appeals weren't adequately represented during previous administrations.
Ryan, himself, had said repeatedly in court briefs that he toiled alone on dozens of death penalty cases and failed to investigate the inmates' arguments or review records. Ryan led the office in the early 2000s.
In a post-conviction petition, an inmate argues about new evidence — or a possible constitutional issue — that could persuade a court to order a new trial.
In 2011, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit from the 15 inmates on procedural grounds. The court said it would consider the individual post-conviction complaints if the inmates filed them.
The state has contended that there is no right to the effective assistance of post-conviction counsel.
In the recent appeal of death row inmate Blayde Grayson, the Mississippi Supreme Court made clear that death row inmates have a right to an effective post-conviction defense.
Grayson, now 37, was convicted in George County in 1997. He was found guilty of the 1996 slaying of 78-year-old Minnie Smith during a house burglary. Authorities said Smith sustained more than 30 stab wounds on the night she died in her rural home at the edge of the Pascagoula River flats.
For Jim Craig, who challenged the post-conviction defense system in the 2010 lawsuit, the issue is now closed.
"I read this Grayson opinion as closing the discussion for all times," said Craig, now an attorney with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center. "All of the justices agreed with the proposition there is a right to state post-conviction counsel. That should be the end of the story.
"People who are still suffering from errors and omissions by their post-conviction lawyers should be allowed an opportunity to present new claims," he said.
Craig said even though the Supreme Court upheld Grayson's conviction and sentence, Grayson can take his post-conviction appeal into the federal courts.
Craig said the decision is good for the Mississippi justice system. He said the Supreme Court now will not let prisoners be executed without having their claims properly heard.
The Supreme Court also noted that Ryan's performance in Grayson's case was deficient, Craig said. That, Craig said, should make the court look more closely at the post-conviction attorney's performance in other cases.
He said Ryan also was lawyer for many of the inmates involved in the 2010 lawsuit.
Craig said Ryan was "pretty upfront about the lack of resources he was dealing with at that time."
While the Supreme Court said it had not recognized a general right to the effective assistance of post-conviction counsel in every criminal case, death penalty cases are different.
"We have said that the death penalty petitioner is 'entitled to appointed competent and conscientious counsel to assist him with is pursuit of post-conviction relief.'
"And because this court has recognized that PCR proceedings are a critical stage of the death penalty appeals process at the state level, today we make clear that PCR petitions who are under the sentence of death do have a right to the effective assistance of PCR counsel," Justice Ann Lamar wrote of the court.