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Supreme Court Will Take up Third Harris County Death Penalty Case This Year

Supreme Court Will Take up Third Harris County Death Penalty Case This Year
Flickr/Ken Piorowski
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After recently ruling in favor of two Harris County death row inmates, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to take up yet another Houston death penalty case this year.

Carlos Ayestas was sentenced to death for his role in a 1995 home invasion, in which Ayestas and two others tied up a 67-year-old woman with duct tape and strangled her to death. His guilt is not at issue in the case — but his appellate attorneys argue that if the jury at his sentencing hearing had known he was schizophrenic and addicted to cocaine, they would have decided against execution. Ayestas's original defense lawyers did not reveal this during the sentencing hearing. The only mitigating evidence they presented about Ayestas was three letters submitted by the Harris County Jail's English-as-a-second-language teacher, who said Ayestas was an attentive student.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to take up the case on the grounds of ineffective counsel, deciding whether the U.S. Fifth Circuit erred when it denied Ayestas additional resources to dig up evidence showing that his original lawyers failed him.

The justices denied to consider the case on one other basis Ayestas's attorneys put forth: that Harris County District Attorney's Office prosecutors sought to execute him based in part on his immigration status.

In 2014, Ayestas's appellate attorneys with the Texas Defender Service discovered an internal "Capital Murder Summary" memo never shared with Ayestas's trial defense counsel. In the memo, prosecutor Kelly Seigler lists two "aggravating circumstances" that support sentencing Ayestas to death. One was the brutal nature of the senior citizen's murder. The other was the fact that Ayestas was not a U.S. citizen. He was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras.

As the Texas Attorney General's Office noted in its brief opposing Ayestas's appeal, someone later crossed out that second immigration-status reason, and it was never presented to the jury. The Supreme Court justices did not explain why they would not consider whether the U.S. Fifth Circuit erred when it declined to hear out Ayestas's claims that prosecutors sought his execution for discriminatory reasons. The Fifth Circuit's basis for declining that argument last March was that Ayestas's defense counsel didn't try hard enough to discover the Capital Murder Summary memo until more than a decade after his trial — reasoning the Texas Defender Service argued was flawed in its Supreme Court writ.

“Mr. Ayestas’s case is about the right to be fairly charged and defended," his attorneys, Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller, said in a statement. "From the charging decision through the federal habeas process, Mr. Ayestas has been denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment and effective representation; these are rights to which all criminal defendants, especially those facing a death sentence, are entitled."

This is the third time this year that a Harris County death penalty case is in the Supreme Court spotlight. Last week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Houston death-row inmate Bobby Moore, whose attorneys have maintained that he is mentally disabled and should not be executed. The court ruled that Texas's method of determining whether death-row inmates are mentally disabled, which is sometimes likened to the "Lennie test," a reference to the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men, is invalid. And in February, justices ruled in favor of Duane Buck. At his sentencing hearing, an expert witness called by Buck's own attorney suggested on the stand that because Buck is black, he posed a greater "future danger." The court ruled Buck is entitled to a new hearing.

In the Texas Defender Service's brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Ayestas, they began by quoting Chief Justice John Roberts's opinion in the Buck case: “[T]his is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”

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