United States Supreme Court Unanimously Reverses Fifth Circuit Habeas Precedent in Death Penalty Case in Condemned Prisoner’s Request for Funding for Investigative Services

In this death penalty case that reached federal court on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the defendant wished to pursue a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failure to research, investigate, and present mitigation evidence. He faced a procedural hurdle though: None of this was raised by state post-conviction counsel.

Petitioner then had to build a case in federal court that his state post-conviction counsel was also ineffective. To make that case, a motion was filed pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3599 seeking funds ot pursue an investigation to make this case. He therefore claimed that the investigation would establish both that his trial-level ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim was not barred by procedural default and that he was entitled to resentencing based on the denial of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of trial counsel.

The District Court denied the request for funding as well as the habeas petition. The Fifth Circuit refused to grant a certificate of appealability, applying 5th Circuit precedent that the Petitioner must show that there is a “substantial need” for the investigative services.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Fifth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings. In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court first rejected Respondent State of Texas’ argument that the Court had no jurisdiction because the District Court’s refusal to allocate investigative services funds was an administrative decision rather than a judicial one.

The Court concluded that Respondent’s argument was based on the fact that the motion proceedings were ex parte in front of the District Court. The Court rejected this position, finding that the fact alone that a party is proceeding with an ex parte motion without the other side present does not render the proceedings non-adversarial nor does it render the decision of the District Court ’s denial of the ex parte motion.

Turning to the merits after deciding the Court has jurisdiction, the Court observed that the Court’s previous decision in Trevino permits a Texas prisoner to overcome the failure to raise a substantial ineffective-assistance claim in state court by showing that state habeas counsel was ineffective and that it’s possible that investigation
might enable a petitioner to carry that burden. This means it may, depending on the facts of an individual case, be error for a district court to refuse funding.

The Supreme Court overruled the Fifth Circuit standard of substantial need as contradicting the language of the federal statute. The Court held that the “reasonably necessary” test requires an assessment of the likely utility of the services requested. In other words, a petitioner need only show that “a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important.”

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, agreed with the Court’s reasoning in full and gave further insight regarding what she feels the Fifth Circuit should do on remand, highlighting that defense counsel spent less than two minutes presenting mitigation to the jury. “Two minutes.”

The case is:

Ayestas v. Davis, Director, Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division; 16–6795.


Related Posts
  • Number 10 of Bill Wolf’s “Top Ten” Fourth Amendment Cases for Illinois Lawyers: The Illinois Appellate Court Case of People v. McCavitt. Read More
  • U.S. Supreme Court Holds Defendants Sentenced on Mandatory Minimum Ineligible for Later Sentencing Reductions Based on Reduction in Guidelines Range. Read More
  • Seventh Circuit Orders Limited Remand in Light of United States v. Dean Read More