Death Row Inmate Given Second Chance by Supreme Court

by | March 22, 2018

By Chuck Lindell

Siding with a Texas death row inmate Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a lower court to take another look at Carlos Ayestas' request for money to fully investigate his claims of schizophrenia, brain injuries and similar issues.

Known as mitigating evidence, such information is supposed to be provided to jurors before they decide whether a capital murder defendant deserves to be executed. Ayestas' trial lawyers, however, presented only one witness, a Harris County Jail teacher who described the inmate as a serious and attentive student.

As part of Ayestas' federal appeals, new lawyers requested -- but were denied -- money to hire a mitigation specialist to investigate Ayestas' medical history and mental health in search of evidence that could provide jurors with reasons to choose life in prison instead of a death sentence.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision to deny money for a specialist, ruling that Ayestas, 48, and his attorneys failed to show a "substantial need" for the investigator.

In its decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the 5th Circuit applied the wrong standard to Ayestas' request, noting that federal law authorizes funding for the "reasonably necessary" services of experts and investigators. The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to reconsider Ayestas' request using the proper analysis.

"The 5th Circuit's requirement that applicants show a 'substantial need' for the services is arguably a more demanding standard," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.

The court rejected arguments from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said the 5th Circuit Court adopted a perfectly acceptable standard that mirrored similar legal requirements for other death penalty appeals and allowed judges to weed out weak claims that can drag out death row cases.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, agreed that the 5th Circuit Court applied the wrong legal standard but said Ayestas had already proved the need to hire a mitigation specialist, making it unnecessary to return his case to the lower court for further action.

Noting the "troubling failures" to properly investigate mitigating evidence -- not only by Ayestas' trial lawyers but also the attorneys who handled his appeals in state court -- Sotomayor said Ayestas' case presented "exactly the types of facts" that should prompt judges to ensure that such mistakes are addressed by providing money for investigators.

Defense lawyers are not challenging the guilt of Ayestas in the 1995 beating and strangulation death of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque in her Houston home. They are seeking a new punishment phase trial to allow jurors to consider additional mitigating evidence before deciding whether he should get the death penalty.

(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas