High Court Grapples With Spurned Claims From Death Row

WASHINGTON (CN) – Habeas challenges from two unrelated death-penalty cases seemed to divide the Supreme Court on Monday.

One of the challengers, Carlos Manuel Ayestas, has been on death row in Texas for 20 years ago after strangling a 67-year-old woman during an apparent robbery.

A Honduran national, Ayestas claimed in a federal habeas petition that his mental health problems and drug addiction should have been presented as mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his trial.

In applying for federal funding to investigate these issues that he said his trial counsel overlooked, Ayestas cited a federal law that requires funding for investigations that are “reasonably necessary for the representation of an indigent defendant” facing the death penalty.

Ayestas appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal judge rejected his funding application  and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that he could not show a “substantial need” for the investigation, given the record in other areas of the case.

The Supreme Court took up the case to resolve whether the Fifth and 11th Circuits properly held Ayestas to the more precise “substantial-need” test, instead of the lesser standards used by most circuits.

Lee Kovarsky with the University of Maryland Law School argued for Ayestas on Monday that the substantial-need test puts an unnecessary high bar on poor people seeking habeas relief because it hinges funding on proof that the investigation would be a success.

Courts should grant requests if the request is for something a “reasonable attorney” would pursue in a case, Kovarsky argued.

Given that Ayestas was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kovarsky said the absence of arguments about mental health problems and drug addiction during the penalty phase of the trial raises questions about the defense.

“It is inconceivable that a reasonable attorney having received this file, getting this case, would do anything other than precisely what federal habeas counsel did in this case,” Kovarsky said. “And the reasonable attorney standard is the right standard because it is the standard that Congress picked.”

Kovarsky specifically said the reasonable attorney conjured for the case would be one with finite funds, not someone representing a “Richie Rich” client who could spend wildly.

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller argued Kovarsky’s proposed standard is too lax and that taxpayer money should not fund investigations into claims a defendant would not be able to bring at trial.

“Whether you call it a plausible analysis or would a reasonable attorney with finite means spend money on it – a reasonable attorney with finite means is going to look at, is this claim barred,” Keller asked. “Is it speculative? Is the evidence that I would attempt to get into the record, is it duplicative? Those are the three elements of the ‘substantial need’ formulation that the Fifth Circuit is using.”

The Supreme Court justices appeared to split along ideological lines during the hearing, with Justice Samuel Alito presenting the most forceful questions to Kovarsky, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor grilled Keller during the hearing.

Alito said the reasonable-attorney standard would provide very little actual guidance because even a reasonable attorney might hunt down the most flimsy lead in a capital case because of the enormously high stakes.

“Whatever necessary means, it means some degree of importance,” Alito said. “The evidence has to meet some level of importance in order for the standard to be met. I don’t see how you can get around it. And to say the test is what would a reasonable attorney with finite means do, it seems to me quite meaningless.” 

But Sotomayor seemed incredulous that the state could get away with executing a defendant whose trial counsel made so many obvious mistakes, such as not getting school records or talking to important witnesses.

“All of those things suggest to me a deficient performance,” Sotomayor said. “You have a lot of legal defenses, but how can you stand here and say that this kind of investigation meets any constitutional standard.”

Sotomayor was similarly harsh on the government during arguments in the second habeas case before the court Monday.

The defendant in the case, Marion Wilson, was sentenced to death after asking an off-duty correctional officer for a ride and then shooting him fatally with a sawed-off shotgun. Wilson’s habeas challenge stems from revelations that one of his attorneys tried his case after accepting a job as special assistant attorney general, while the other was disbarred after being convicted of child molestation.

In affirming dismissal of the federal petition, the 11th Circuit opted not to review the lower state court decision, but rather looked into what “reasonable basis” the Georgia Supreme Court might have had to rule against Wilson.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s summary order against Wilson was just two sentences long. “Upon consideration of the application for certificate of probable cause to appeal the denial of habeas corpus, it is ordered that it hereby be denied,” it said. “All the justices concur.”

Tallahassee attorney Mark Olive argued Monday that the interpretation of state habeas proceedings evinced by the 11th Circuit flies directly counter to the Supreme Courts holding in Ylst v. Nunnemaker.

A 1991 case, Ylst holds that federal courts should “look through” summary orders to more explained decisions in lower courts.

“I think what the state’s rule creates is a maze trying to figure out what a summary affirmance means in a state, what a discretionary denial of an appeal means, what do any of them mean when the Ylst rule applies across the board?”

But Georgia Solicitor General Sarah Hawkins Warren argued a new federal law and the court’s more recent decision in Harrington v. Richter mean state courts do not just adopt all of the reasoning of the court below them when giving a short summary affirmance.

“Justice Sotomayor, I think we have to look at what they say when they say something,” Warren said.

Sotomayor was highly skeptical of this reasoning, wondering if making state rulings so limited would give less importance to state habeas proceedings. She questioned whether the state could come into federal court with a totally new argument that was not presented at the state level if the most recent state court only gave a summary affirmance. 

“So why do we bother having state habeas anymore?” Sotomayor asked when Warren said the state probably could. “Why don’t we just say have federal habeas only and assume that the state will deny every habeas?”

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