U.S. Supreme Court considers Texas death penalty case of Carlos Ayestas

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Ayesta v. Davis. Carlos Ayestas is a Honduran national who was sentenced to death in Harris County in 1997 for his role in the 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during an apparent robbery.

During his original trial, Ayestas’ attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence about his substance abuse and mental health issues.  They provided two minutes of testimony during the punishment phase. The fact that a jury never heard this mitigating evidence – and federal courts have denied attorneys the funds to investigate it – is at the heart of the claim before the Court.

Here’s a synopsis of the case from the Texas Tribune:

Ayestas’ federal appellate lawyers have sought funding they say is “reasonably necessary” to investigate claims of mental illness and substance abuse that trial lawyers missed. They argue that the mitigating evidence could have swayed the jury to hand down an alternate sentence of life in prison.

The courts denied the funding request, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ayestas didn’t show “substantial need” for the funding, claiming that there was no obligation for his lawyers to look into those areas, and that any potential findings affected his sentence because of the crime’s brutality and his threatening actions afterward.

According to the Tribune, the Justices can either uphold the federal court’s decision to deny funding, send the case back to the 5th Circuit for further review, or order the lower court to grant funding. A ruling is not expected until next year.

In a guest post for the ACSBlog, Emily Olson-Gault, director, American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project and Misty C. Thomas, director, American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project note the following:

In the Criminal Justice Act, Congress has long recognized the need to provide reasonable funding for investigation to defense counsel who are representing poor people accused or convicted of crimes. Without such resources, defense lawyers cannot fulfill their ethical obligations to their clients and the reliability of our justice system is greatly diminished. While important in all criminal cases, Congress and the courts have noted that the ability to investigate fully is particularly vital in death penalty cases, where mistakes become irreversible once the punishment is carried out.

In Ayestas v. Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether this rigid Fifth Circuit standard misinterprets the federal law that governs funding for habeas investigations. The Court has the opportunity to ensure that the conventional, plain-language reading of the statute remains the status quo, better ensuring that the law is consistent and fair for all poor defendants who simply want to exercise their statutory and Constitutional rights. The Court would be on solid legal footing in doing so.

Additional perspective from legal experts is available from the LA Times and Washington Post.

Ayestas v. Davis was the third death penalty case out of Harris County considered by the Court over the last year.