Legal Funds for Death Row Inmates
In its first case of the session, the justices will review the Fifth Circuit’s rule on which
death row inmates are eligible to receive funds to help challenge their sentences.
The case, Ayestas v. Davis, involves the Fifth Circuit’s “substantial need” rule, which
requires defendants seeking additional resources for a claim of ineffective assistance of
counsel to show how their attorney’s performance deprived them of their Sixth
Amendment right to assistance of counsel.
Petitioner Carlos Ayestas says that rule is “circular” as it requires defendants to prove
ineffective assistance before they can receive additional resources to prove ineffective
assistance. Ayestas was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing a 67-year-old woman during
a robbery in Houston.
The American Bar Association has filed an amicus brief in favor of Ayestas, saying the Fifth
Circuit’s rule “prevents counsel representing indigent petitioners from fulfilling their
professional responsibilities in this critical stage of proceedings, thereby increasing the risk
of an unjust execution.”
Ayestas had also claimed that state prosecutors sought the death penalty because of his
Honduran nationality, a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. According to
Ayestas, a Harris County prosecutor listed the fact that “the defendant is not a citizen” as
an aggravating circumstance supporting a capital charge in an internal memo that was
uncovered by his counsel in December 2014. In granting Ayestas’ petition for certiorari in
April, however, the Supreme Court limited its review to the question about the “substantial
University of Maryland professor Lee Kovarsky will argue on behalf of Ayestas, facing off
against Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller.
The case is Ayestas v. Davis, case number 16-6795.