Ayestas v. Davis

Summarized by:

  • Court: U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: April 3, 2017
  • Case #: 16-6795
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 817 F.3d 888 (5th Cir. 2016)
  • Full Text Opinion

Whether a court may deny a movant's request for "reasonably necessary" resources under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) to investigate and advance an ineffective assistance of counsel claim that was forfeited by the movant's state habeas counsel, where the movant's "existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the § 3599(f) motion is made."

Petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in July 1997. Petitioner, through his habeas counsel, moved for state habeas relief under an ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claim based off of Petitioner’s trial counsel’s failure to provide testimony of Honduran witnesses (primarily his family) that spoke to Petitioner’s good character, lack of juvenile or criminal history in Honduras and his positive upbringing, which may have prevented the imposition of the death penalty. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was not persuaded and ultimately affirmed the capital sentence. Petitioner then pursued a federal habeas claim, which included, for the first time, a claim that his trial and state habeas counsel were ineffective by limited the scope of their investigation and not submitted evidence of Petitioner’s substance abuse and mental health. Petitioner moved for expert assistance and investigation under 18 USC § 3599(f) to discover evidence that would support his claims, but the district court denied Petitioner’s motion. Under recent Fifth Circuit precedent, funding under18 USC § 3599(f) is only available if the district court finds that a "substantial need" exists for such assistance to advance a claim. The district court found that Petitioner's IAC claim was meritless and that a mitigation specialist was not "reasonably necessary" for purposes of 18 USC § 3599(f). The district court supported its position in part by pointing out that Petitioner had instructed his trial counsel not to contact his family, the alleged source of mitigating information that Petitioner alleges his trial counsel was ineffective at acquiring and presenting, and that Petitioner did not withdraw this instruction until approximately the time of jury selection. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Petitioner's claim was meritless, and in turn, that a Petitioner's motion for a mitigation specialist under 18 USC § 3599(f) was not "reasonably necessary." The Fifth Circuit, applying circuit precedent, found that Petitioner was required to demonstrate to the district court that a viable constitutional claim existed through a "substantiated argument, not speculation" and that Petitioner failed to do so under the circumstances. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Petitioner argues that the Fifth Circuit's interpretation of the substantial-need inquiry prevents individuals from developing meritorious IAC claims by denying them assistance under 18 USC § 3599(f) unless he or she can "carry the ultimate burden of proof on the underlying claim at the time the motion is made"

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