Justices Probe Role of Mental Illness, Drugs in Death Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court examined a Texas death penalty case Monday, weighing when federal courts should grant funding to investigate unexplored mitigating evidence that could toss out a death sentence, the Texas Tribune reports. The court heard arguments in the case of Carlos Ayestas, a 48-year-old Honduran national sentenced to death 20 years ago in the 1995 murder and home burglary of a 67-year-old woman. Ayestas’ federal appellate lawyers have sought funding they say is “reasonably necessary” to investigate claims of mental illness and substance abuse that trial lawyers missed. They argue that the mitigating evidence could have persuaded the jury to hand down an alternate sentence of life in prison.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Ayestas didn’t show “substantial need” for the funding, saying there was no obligation for his lawyers to look into those areas and that any findings wouldn’t necessarily have affected his sentence because of the crime’s brutality and his threatening actions afterward. “What the court cannot do and what the 5th Circuit regularly does under its ‘substantial need’ rule is say … ‘We’re going to speculate about what you’re going to find when you go out and you look for this mitigation evidence … and we’re going to guess, based on that estimation, that you’re not going to meet that showing,’ ” Ayestas’ lawyer, Lee Kovarsky, told the justices. Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller said the high court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear Ayestas’ appeal because a court’s funding determination is administrative, not judicial, and therefore unappealable. The liberal justices didn’t bite. “So where do you go if a circuit is arbitrarily and capriciously saying, ‘We’re not going to give any funds, period’?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “What happens in that situation? Where does the defendant go?” Conservative justices stayed mostly quiet.

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