Death Row Inmates Across The South Just Got A Boost From The Supreme Court

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Texas death row inmate may be eligible for a $20,000 award to finance the collection of evidence that could save his life.

The ruling is a boon to death row inmates, who often have trouble raising money for their defenses.

At issue in the case was a federal law allowing capital defendants to use taxpayer dollars to assemble mitigating evidence. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Texas inmate Carlos Ayestas could not receive the monies, but the justices said they used the wrong legal standard in evaluating his claim.

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Wednesday’s decision, Justice Samuel Alito authored, was unanimous as to the judgement, though two justices wrote separately to say the Court should have gone further.

Ayestas was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of 67-year-old woman Santiaga Paneque. She was bound with duct tape in her home and beaten to death during the course of a robbery.

During death penalty sentencing in Texas, juries must consider whether the presence of certain mitigating factors — like drug addiction or mental illness — lessen a convict’s culpability in a crime punishable by death, such that a life sentence would be more appropriate.

On appeal, Ayestas asked for federal money to finance an effort demonstrating such factors apply in his case. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic and claims he abused alcohol and cocaine around the time of the murder. The Criminal Justice Act (CJA) makes such funds available to defense lawyers if they can demonstrate it is “reasonably necessary.”

The 5th Circuit interpreted the law to mean convicts must show a “substantial need” for these monies and financing may be denied if the applicant fails to present a serious constitutional violation.

The Supreme Court found this standard is higher than the CJA sets and ordered the 5th Circuit to reconsider their decision.

“Petitioner contends that this interpretation is more demanding than the standard — ‘reasonably necessary’ — set out in the statute,” Alito wrote. “And although the difference between the two formulations may not be great, petitioner has a point.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote separately to argue the Court should grant Ayestas the funds outright. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her opinion.

The decision is especially important, as the 5th Circuit covers Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state.

The case, Ayestas v. Davis, was argued in October 2017.

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