April 3, 2017
The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will look at another Texas death penalty case, this one examining whether the federal courts are providing adequate legal resources to help on appeal.
In addition to taking the case of Carlos Ayestas, convicted of killing a Houston woman during a burglary of her home in 1995, the court also acted in favor of two other Texas death row inmates whose lawyers argued that they are ineligible for execution because they have intellectual disabilities.
The high court vacated rulings that said James Henderson and Raymond Martinez could be executed and returned their cases to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration based on the Supreme Court’s opinion last week in the case of Bobby James Moore, another Texas death row inmate.
In last week’s 5-3 ruling, the high court said Texas courts had employed outdated and unscientific standards to measure intellectual disability — standards the 5th Circuit Court had approved of in other cases, including those involving Henderson and Martinez.
In another Texas case in February, the Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing trial for Duane Buck because a psychologist testified during his trial that black defendants were generally more dangerous than white ones. Introducing that concept into a death penalty case involving Buck, a black man, was “a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice,” the court said in a 6-2 ruling.
Ayestas’ case will be argued after the Supreme Court begins its next term in October.
Ayestas, who is indigent, challenged a federal court ruling that denied his request to pay for a specialist to investigate factors that may have led jurors to choose life in prison instead of a death sentence. The mitigation specialist was needed to determine if his trial lawyers failed to do the work before his sentencing, Ayestas argued.
The Supreme Court will weigh Ayestas’ claim that federal courts, including the 5th Circuit Court, improperly forced him to prove a “substantial need” for the expert, a much more difficult burden to meet than the “reasonably necessary” standard in federal law.
The high court declined to review a second question raised by Ayestas — whether his lawyers should be given the opportunity to develop an appeal based on an internal pretrial memo from the Harris County district attorney’s office indicating that Ayestas’ status as a non-U.S. citizen was one reason to pursue the death penalty.
Selective prosecution based on race, nationality or alien status violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and undermines the credibility of the U.S. justice system, his lawyers argued.
“We look forward to appearing before the Supreme Court and have faith that the 5th Circuit’s decision denying him a meaningful opportunity to be heard will be reversed,” Ayestas’ lawyers, Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller with the Texas Defender Service, said in a statement.
“Mr. Ayestas’s case is about the right to be fairly charged and defended,” they said, adding that they believe he was “denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment and effective representation.”