The U.S. Supreme Court takes on another Texas death penalty case Monday, and, like most reviews, this one focuses on whether the legal system is providing adequate protections before the ultimate punishment is enforced.
Defense lawyers are not challenging the guilt of Carlos Ayestas in the 1995 beating and strangulation death of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque in her Houston home.
Rather, they’ll use Monday’s oral arguments in Washington to contend that federal courts are withholding money needed to properly investigate Ayestas’ schizophrenia, history of 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 take responsibility for the crime by being put to death.
During a brief presentation in the punishment phase of Ayestas’ trial, the only mitigating evidence presented by defense lawyers came from a Harris County Jail teacher who described the inmate as a serious and attentive student.
Unless the federal courts reverse their tightfisted policies and provide money for a specialized investigator, defense lawyers say, Ayestas will be executed without any judge or juror hearing evidence that could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison, not death.
The Texas case “will test our commitment to fair trials,” not only for Ayestas but for other death row inmates, said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book “End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.”
The issue before the Supreme Court revolves around the U.S. Criminal Justice Act, which includes a provision ensuring that indigent death row inmates get court-provided money to hire investigators and experts who are “reasonably necessary” to pursue an appeal.
Ayestas requested a mitigation specialist to collect evidence that he argues should have been compiled by his trial lawyers and presented to his jury. That information could provide the evidence needed to show that his trial lawyers were deficient, requiring that Ayestas be given a new sentencing trial and a chance to ask jurors for a life sentence.
Ayestas’ request was rejected, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying the inmate did not demonstrate a “substantial need” for the expert.
Defense lawyers argue that the 5th Circuit Court’s “substantial need” requirement is improper — providing a tougher hurdle than the “reasonably necessary” standard in federal law — putting inmates in the “Catch-22” situation of having to show a court why the evidence is important before that evidence can be developed.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s top appellate lawyer, Solicitor General Scott Keller, plans to argue that the 5th Circuit Court has adopted a perfectly acceptable standard that mirrors similar legal requirements for death penalty appeals.
The standard allows judges to weed out weak claims that can drag out death penalty appeals, Texas officials told the Supreme Court in a brief, adding that the standard proposed by Ayestas’ lawyers “provides effectively no limit” on funding requests for appeals.
“Petitioners are not entitled to funding to undertake fishing expeditions to discover claims that may or may not exist,” the Texas brief said.
The brief also said the lower court properly denied Ayestas’ request for a mitigation specialist.
Defense lawyers must show a “substantial likelihood” that the information about Ayestas’ past would have prompted jurors to give him a life sentence instead of the death penalty, it said. But given the brutal nature of Paneque’s murder and other acts of violence by Ayestas, it is highly unlikely that evidence of mental illness, brain injuries or drug and alcohol abuse in his past would have changed the sentence, the Texas brief argued.
Defense lawyers plan to argue that Texas officials have missed the point.
“Courts do not rewrite statutes,” they told the Supreme Court. The law “means what it says: Courts should authorize services when they are reasonably — not substantially — necessary for the representation.”
Texas death penalty cases
A ruling is expected before the court’s term ends next summer, building on other recent decisions in Texas death penalty cases, including:
• In February, the Supreme Court tossed out the death sentence given to Duane Buck, an African-American, because a defense expert testified at his trial that black men were more likely to commit violence. In a deal with prosecutors, Buck was sentenced to life in prison for capital murder in October after pleading guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder.
• In March, the high court sided with death row inmate Bobby James Moore, ruling that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had ignored scientific advances on how to measure intellectual disabilities, creating “an unacceptable risk” that intellectually disabled Texans will be executed. The Supreme Court ordered the Texas court to re-evaluate Moore’s eligibility for the death penalty using appropriate measures of disability. That review is still underway.
• In June, the Supreme Court ruled against death row inmate Erick Davila, upholding a 5th Circuit Court decision that limited inmates’ ability to challenge the effectiveness of appellate lawyers.
By far the nation’s most prolific death penalty state, Texas has executed six inmates in 2017 — Arkansas is second nationally with four — and there are four Texas executions scheduled through Jan. 30.