SCOTUS Picks Up Circuit Split Over Habeas Help

(CN) – A Texas death-row inmate whose mental illness wasn’t explored by his trial attorney persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to hear arguments he was wrongly denied resources to vet his ineffective-counsel claims.

The case could resolve a circuit split on when death-row inmates should be given experts to help them develop claims that their trial attorneys were incompetent.

Carlos Ayestas, 47, is a Honduran immigrant on death row for the murder of a 67-year-old woman he strangled in her Texas home during a 1995 robbery.

Ayestas grew up in a stable, middle-class family in Honduras, but he started drinking at age 16 and by 17 he had three children, according to the case record. He left Honduras for the United States when he was 18 without telling his immediate family.

To sentence a prisoner to death, a Texas jury must decide there’s no mitigating evidence in their background worthy of giving them a life sentence.

Ayestas reportedly told his defense team not to contact his family in Honduras to ask them to come to the United States to testify in his defense, and three letters from his prison English teacher that positively assessed his class work was the only evidence his trial attorney introduced in his favor.

A Harris County jury sentenced him to death in July 1997.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals appointed Gary Hart to handle Ayestas’ state habeas appeal, in which he claimed his trial counsel was ineffective in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.

Hart hired a mitigation specialist who worked up an investigation plan aimed at helping Ayestas get court funding to cover the cost of an expert to look into his background for evidence that could persuade a jury to spare his life.

The specialist told Hart he should interview Ayestas’ friends, investigate his history of substance abuse for clues about how it could have affected his behavior and look for signs of mental illness.

But Ayestas says Hart ignored the recommendations. Instead, all he did was interview Ayestas’ mother and his two sisters.

The state habeas application Hart filed for Ayestas didn’t mention an investigation commissioned by Ayestas’ trial attorney that found he had suffered head injuries in a motorcycle and car accident, and he started drinking alcohol as a teen and did cocaine at least once a week – leads his trial attorney didn’t pursue, according to Ayestas’ petition.

With his state habeas case pending, Ayestas suffered a psychotic episode in 2001, and a Texas prison psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

But Hart didn’t add the diagnosis to Ayestas’ state habeas claims, even after a psychologist recommended that Ayestas’ mental health be evaluated, and withdrew from the case in 2006.

Lawyers appointed to Ayestas for his federal habeas case dove much deeper into his background. They interviewed his family members who described how his taskmaster father had 22 children with several different women, never married his mother and never returned to Ayestas’ childhood home after he shot a neighbor in a feud over a dog.

Based on the new information, his federal lawyers filed a Wiggins claim alleging his trial lawyer unreasonably limited her investigation into his background after finding clear signs of mental health problems and substance abuse, and that if these angles had been pursued there was a good chance the jury would have given him a life sentence.

Wiggins claims were established by the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Kevin Wiggins v. Sewall Smith, Warden, in which the court found work by Wiggins’ attorneys during his sentencing hearing violated his constitutional right to effective counsel.

But at the time, federal habeas ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims were only allowed if they were first made in state habeas proceedings, and U.S. District Judge Sim Lake denied the Wiggins claim as procedurally defaulted.

The U.S. Supreme Court breathed life into Ayestas’ case with its 2012 ruling in Martinez v. Ryan, which established that state inmates can pursue procedurally defaulted ineffective-counsel claims if they were defaulted because state habeas counsel failed to bring them up.

Buoyed by the Martinez ruling, Ayestas asked Lake for an expert to develop his claim that his trial lawyer was deficient.

But Lake in November 2014 refused to authorize a mitigation specialist for Ayestas, finding his trial attorney’s performance couldn’t have been deficient because he told her not to interview any of his family members.

Ayestas appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, which denied relief in March 2016 on the grounds that he couldn’t prove there was a “substantial need” for investigative work to develop his ineffective-counsel claims.

The law at issue is in Section 3599 of Chapter 18 of U.S. Code.

It states: “Upon a finding that investigative, expert, or other services are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant, whether in connection with issues relating to guilt or the sentence, the court may authorize the defendant’s attorneys to obtain such services on behalf of the defendant and, if so authorized, shall order the payment of fees and expenses.”

In a petition for review to the Supreme Court, Ayestas decried the Fifth Circuit’s circular logic.

“The Fifth Circuit’s test conditions the availability of resources to develop facts on the ability of inmates to prove those very facts when they plead their claims,” his petition states.

Ayestas asked the Supreme Court to weigh in because the Fifth Circuit’s substantial-need framework splits with the Sixth Circuit, which has faulted the Fifth Circuit for using a tougher pleading standard than the “reasonably necessary” need for expert assistance set out in the statute.

Texas argued in an opposition brief that Ayestas’ trial counsel wasn’t deficient because she simply followed his instructions not to contact his family members in Honduras to testify for him.

“It is not ineffective assistance to follow a client’s wishes with regard to mitigation evidence,” Texas states in its brief.

Per its custom, the Supreme Court didn’t comment on its decision to hear the case. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in October.

Ayestas’ attorneys Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller with Texas Defender Service said they are confident the Supreme Court will reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision to deny him mitigation experts.

“Although federal law guarantees indigent capital defendants representation in federal proceedings, the lower courts denied Mr. Ayestas the resources he needed to litigate the constitutional failures of his trial counsel,” they said in a statement.

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