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There is no federal constitutional right to counsel for indigent prisoners seeking state postconviction relief. Postconviction relief is even further removed from the criminal trial than is discretionary direct review. It is not part of the criminal proceeding itself, and it is in fact considered to be civil in nature. States have no obligation to provide this avenue of relief, and when they do, the fundamental fairness mandated by the Due Process Clause does not require that the state supply a lawyer as well.
Respondent inmates, Giarratano Et Al., under a death sentence filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 in the District Court against petitioner state officials, Murray, Director, Virginia Department of Corrections, et al., claiming entitlement to appointed counsel to pursue postconviction proceedings. The inmates argued that although indigent prisoners were not normally afforded state appointed counsel for postconviction proceedings, the Eighth Amendment required that counsel be made available to inmates on death row. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the inmates' argument and found that there was no federal constitutional right to counsel for indigent prisoners seeking state post-conviction relief because such proceedings were not part of the criminal process itself. The district court certified the matter as a class action for indigent inmates awaiting execution and entered judgment for the inmates. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The state officials appealed.
Did the Constitution afford respondent inmates the right to counsel to pursue postconviction proceedings?
No. The judgment of US Court of Appeals affirming the district court’s decision is reversed, and the case is remanded.
The Court ruled that neither the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor the equal protection guarantee of meaningful access requires the state to appoint counsel for indigent prisoners seeking state postconviction relief. The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution assure the right of an indigent defendant to counsel at the trial stage of a criminal proceeding, and an indigent defendant is similarly entitled as a matter of right to counsel for an initial appeal from the judgment and sentence of the trial court.