The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear another death row case from the Texas County that ranks number one in the nation for sending defendants to the death chamber. The Honduran national urges he should have been given resources to develop his claim of mental illness and drug addiction and prosecutors should not have considered his status as an illegal alien.
The jury took just 12 minutes to sentence Carlos Ayestas to death for murdering a 67-year-old woman while burglarizing her home in Houston in 1995. Prosecutors said he strangled Santiaga Paneque to death after he and two accomplices restrained her with duct tape. Ayestas argues that evidence of mental illness and drug addiction might have lead jurors to give him a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
On Monday, the Supreme Court granted Ayestas’ request to hear the case but limited the question before the court to whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that under the particular circumstances, resources were not necessary to investigate and develop an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The lower courts had denied Ayestas’ motion for “investigative, expert, [and] other services” that were “reasonably necessary” to develop facts for a Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
Ayestas argues that the Fifth Circuit interprets “reasonably necessary” to require the inmate to show “substantial need.” This standard “forms an express circuit split with other federal courts of appeal,” his lawyers say. “[U]nless inmates are able to carry the burden of proof on the underlying claim at the time they make [their motion],” they are not given the expert and investigative assistance.
The Supreme Court declined to decide the issue of whether the district court abused its discretion when it refused to grant a stay necessary to exhaust claims of “newly discovered evidence revealing overt discrimination in the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty.” The charging memo had provided as one of the two reasons for seeking the death penalty: “THE DEFENDANT IS NOT A CITIZEN.”
Ayestas who was in his early twenties when he began to serve his time, has been on death row for almost 20 years. He urges that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyer did not present newly-discovered evidence about his mental illness and addiction at the time of the murder. The Fifth Circuit said the district clerk rejected his claim because Ayestas barred his attorneys from contacting his family until the time of jury selection for his sentencing.
Oral arguments in the case will be after the Supreme Court begins its new term on October 2.
Last week, the Supreme Court reversed the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in a 5-3 vote finding it used the wrong standard in determining whether the defendant was intellectually disabled. Bobby James Moore was convicted of capital murder for fatally shooting a store clerk when he was 20-years-old. The issue was whether his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Moore had IQ scores of 74 and 78. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) used the standard set out in a 2004 opinion of the court (Ex parte Briseno) which adopted the standards set out in the 1992 (ninth) edition of the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR-9). The Supreme Court found that the CCA used standards that deviated from prevailing clinical standards and from the older clinical standards that they found were applicable.
On Monday, the Supreme Court remanded two cases based on its decision in the Bobby James Moore case. James L. Henderson and Raymond Martinez will have their cases tested under the standards set out in the Moore opinion. These decades-old death penalty cases are out of Bowie and Brown counties in Texas.
Carmen Roe, a Houston criminal defense attorney who has served as president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) told Breitbart Texas, “The high court’s recent decisions should be encouraging to anyone concerned with the limitations of our criminal justice system to reach a reliable result and avoid the inhumane act of executing those with limited mental capacity.”
In February, another Texas death penalty case was reversed by the Supreme Court after it found that race was considered in Duane Buck’s 1995 case. The question presented to the high court included whether his “trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for knowingly presenting an ‘expert’ who testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black.” The psychologist’s report also stated that Buck was statistically more likely to be violent because he is Black. His lawyers did not raise this claim in state postconviction proceedings; it was raised later in the federal courts. The Supreme Court remanded the case after it found that Buck received ineffective assistance of counsel for eliciting testimony about the connection between race and violence.