The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the Texas death penalty case of a Honduran national who is arguing that a federal appeals court wrongly denied him resources to investigate and provide evidence of substance abuse and mental illness.
Advocates for Carlos Ayestas believe that if a jury had heard he had a history of cocaine addiction and mental illness, they may not have sentenced him to death for his role in a 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during a Houston home invasion. State officials have dismissed such speculation.
Ayestas and two others bound Paneque with duct tape before beating her and strangling her to death, according to the state's brief to the Supreme Court. Ayestas was found guilty and sentenced to death two years later.
Controversially, a memo discovered in 2014 showed the Harris County District Attorney initially listed one reason to pursue the death penalty in Ayestas’ case was his immigration status: he was living in Houston illegally.
Now, after almost 20 years on death row, 47-year-old Ayestas' case will be reviewed by the nation’s highest court. In the case, Ayestas claims the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly denied him resources to investigate and produce evidence that his previous lawyers failed to raise in trial and state appeals. (In his petition to the high court, he also raised the issue of the Harris County memo, but the court denied it a hearing.)
"Mr. Ayestas’s case is about the right to be fairly charged and defended. From the charging decision through the federal habeas process, Mr. Ayestas has been denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment and effective representation," Ayestas’ lawyers Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller said in a statement after the court's decision. "...We look forward to appearing before the Supreme Court and have faith that the Fifth Circuit’s decision denying him a meaningful opportunity to be heard will be reversed."
The Texas Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the case.
During his trial in 1997, Ayestas’ lawyer provided little evidence to try to persuade jurors that her client should be spared from a death sentence, according to Ayestas’ petition to the Supreme Court. His lawyer brought forth only positive recommendations from his prison English teacher.
“Despite her awareness of a history of substance abuse and red flags for mental health problems, trial counsel’s preparation was delayed, rudimentary, and proceeded on a timeline inconsistent with her explanation that she throttled investigation on Mr. Ayestas’ instruction,” Kovarsky wrote in the petition.
The state has argued this lack of evidence is Ayestas’ fault alone, since he instructed his lawyer not to contact his Honduran family until jury selection began.
Now, in Ayestas’ most recent appeal, he raises an “ineffective assistance of counsel” claim, saying his previous lawyers failed him by not producing newly-discovered evidence of a cocaine addiction and mental illness. Ayestas was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2001, and his lawyers believe they could prove this illness was brought forth before the murder, during traumatic experiences he had in Honduras and Mexico, where his sister said he was held captive for six months until his father paid a ransom.
But this evidence isn’t fully formed. Ayestas asked an appellate court for the resources to truly investigate this claim and others brought forth by his family to be able to provide a compelling case for relief from his death sentence. A federal district court denied the plea, and the Fifth Circuit upheld that decision.
That ruling is what stands before the Supreme Court now. Ayestas claims the Fifth Circuit was wrong to deny him investigatory resources, adding that other courts around the nation have held different interpretations of the rule that the Fifth Circuit used to deny Ayestas’ plea. But Texas argues there is no circuit split, and that in his argument for investigatory resources, Ayestas “misses the point” of the appellate court’s ruling.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that it would not provide resources because even if Ayestas could prove a substance abuse disorder, no jury would have found it “sufficiently mitigating in light of the crime’s brutality.” The court also said that the chance of any mental health evidence would have influenced the jury’s verdict was “conceivable, but not substantially likely,” a necessary determinant when granting appeals in death penalty cases.
“The Fifth Circuit determined that, even if petitioner conducted the investigation for which he sought funding, his ineffective-assistance claim would still fail…,” Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller wrote in the state’s brief. “Having concluded that petitioner's underlying ineffective-assistance claim lacked merit, the court denied funding to further develop it.”
The case has been scheduled for the high court’s October term, according to SCOTUSblog.
More from the Supreme Court on Texas death penalty: