U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Texas Death-Row Prisoner Denied Investigative Funding
In a decision that clarifies the showing indigent prisoners must make to obtain investigative services, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Texas death-row prisoner who was denied funding to challenge the death sentence imposed in his case. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court unanimously ruled that the Texas federal courts had applied an overly restrictive legal standard in denying Carlos Ayestas (pictured) funding to investigate and develop his claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his trial. Federal law requires habeas-corpus courts in death-penalty cases to provide funding that is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, has instead required indigent applicants to demonstrate a "substantial need" for funding. The Court returned the case to the federal appeals court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding using the proper standard. Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national, was sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas in 1997. His trial counsel conducted virtually no life-history investigation and presented a case for life to the jury that lasted just two minutes and included only a single letter from an English teacher in prison. Both his trial and state post-conviction lawyers overlooked available evidence of mental illness and brain damage—including head trauma and substance abuse—and failed to develop a record of the mitigating evidence that his federal habeas lawyers argued should have been presented in his case. The lawyers appointed to represent Ayestas in federal court sought funding to investigate his background, upbringing, and mental health history, without which, they argued, he would be unable to discover mitigating evidence indispensable to presenting a meaningful case to spare his life. The Texas federal district court, applying the Fifth Circuit's "substantial need" test, denied him funding and dismissed his habeas corpus petition, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, reversed and ordered the federal appellate court to reconsider Ayestas's request for funding. In determining whether a funding request is "reasonably necessary" to the petitioner's case, Justice Alito wrote, federal courts courts should assess "whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important." This standard "requires courts to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way." In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote "to explain why, on the record before this Court, there should be little doubt" that Ayestas had already made a showing sufficient to obtain funding. Trial counsel's obligation to thoroughly investigate possible mental illness, she wrote, "exists in part precisely because it is all too common for individuals to go years battling an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. ... [T]he troubling failures of counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stages of Ayestas’ case are exactly the types of facts that should prompt courts to afford investigatory services, to ensure that trial errors that go to a 'bedrock principle in our justice system' do not go unaddressed."
(Jolie McCullough and Emma Platoff, U.S. Supreme Court orders lower court to reconsider Texas death row inmate's appeal for funds to investigate his case, The Texas Tribune, March 21, 2018; Robert Barnes, Supreme Court gives Texas inmate chance to secure funds that could help him avoid death penalty, Washington Post, March 21, 208; Steve Vladeck, Opinion analysis: Justices unanimously reverse 5th Circuit on funding for capital habeas petitions, SCOTUSblog, March 21, 2018.) Read the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ayestas v. Davis. See Texas and Supreme Court.