Posted on 7/3/17

An inmate sitting on death row in Texas is nothing new; in fact, commentators who refer to death row commonly refer to Texas. In death row cases, particularly those in Texas, inmates will often appeal on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. That is to say, a defendant on death row will attempt to stay execution by asserting that his or her trial counsel, which is often the public defender, did not provide effective representation in a court of law.

In its October term, the United States Supreme will hear such a Texas case involving Carlos Ayestas, a Honduran national convicted of murder in 1995. In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Ayestas is not denying what happened; instead, Ayestas is praying for relief due to his trial counsel not presenting evidence of mental illness before the jury.

The Ayestas Case

In 1995, Carlos Ayestas, an illegal immigrant from Honduras living in Houston, brutally murdered Santiaga Penique during a home invasion. Ayestas and two others bound Penique with duct tape and strangled her to death. The two other men involved in the murder cooperated with the police and testified against Ayestas. Those men are currently serving life in jail.

At his 1997 trial, Ayestas’s lawyer did not raise the issue of his mental health defencies and drug addiction, according to a petition submitted by Ayestas. In relevant part, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” That is, the accused has a constitutional right to effective counsel on his or her behalf. This constitutional right is applicable regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, gender or financial circumstance

Moreover, Ayestas provides evidence of a schizophrenia diagnosis from 2001. While the diagnosis is post-murder, Ayestas claims that he suffered severe mental health issues prior to the murder due to how he was held captive in his native Honduras for six months until his father paid a ransom.

Ayestas claims that he needs to investigate this matter but is unable to do so because he is indigent. Therefore, he would need a specialist to investigate the circumstances, which would need to come from the government. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled that for a specialist to investigate the matter, Ayestas would need to demonstrate “substantial need” for such a specialist, which Ayestas did not meet. Ayestas’s legal team countered that the test should be “reasonably necessary,” which is a lower standard.

The Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments. The Supreme Court will be tasked in determining how far the Sixth Amendment’s ineffective assistance of counsel requirement goes. It may also be determinative with respect to how much investigation is required when an indigent defendant requests an investigation into possible mental illness.

Accused of a crime? Then you need an advocate on your side who is both skilled and knowledgeable. Contact the criminal defense law firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified criminal defense attorney.     

(image courtesy of Claire Anderson) 

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