Carlos Ayestas was sentenced to death in Texas in 1997 for the murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque two years earlier. But because a judge did not allocate the funds that the federal Criminal Justice Act allows “upon a finding that investigative, expert, or other services are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant,” no witnesses were presented during Ayestas’ penalty phase to testify that he was a diagnozed schizophrenic, had abused drugs and alcohol, and had suffered head trauma. In fact, the defense presentation of mitigating factors during the penalty phase took “two minutes,” accoring to Ayestas’ current lawyer. As a result, the jury took 12 minutes to sentence him to death.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments that Ayestas was denied his rights to a mitigation specialist to investigate his background, including his mental health and drug and alcohol abuse in violation of the Criminal Justice Act.
At the core of the argument is the difference between what the CJA described as “reasonably necessary,” for the defense, and what the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in denying Ayestas’ appeal, said was a failure to prove a “substantial need” for the funds.
According to the New York Times, during the hearing, “Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. said the two phrases meant the same thing,” while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The only chance in the world that this defendant has is if he can put on a mitigation case and convince one juror he shouldn’t get the death penalty.”
But perhaps UC Berkeley Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky put it most succinctly in an op-ed he wrote for the LA Times, when he wrote, “No one should face excution because they’re too poor to put on a defense.”