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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Supreme Court to hear another Texas death penalty case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the Texas death penalty case of a Honduran national who was convicted for his role in a 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during a Houston home invasion.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the Texas death penalty case of a Honduran national who is arguing that a federal appeals court wrongly denied him resources to investigate and provide evidence of substance abuse and mental illness.

Advocates for Carlos Ayestas believe that if a jury had heard he had a history of cocaine addiction and mental illness, they may not have sentenced him to death for his role in a 1995 murder of 67-year-old Santiaga Paneque during a Houston home invasion. State officials have dismissed such speculation.

Ayestas and two others bound Paneque with duct tape before beating her and strangling her to death, according to the state's brief to the Supreme Court. Ayestas was found guilty and sentenced to death two years later.

Controversially, a memo discovered in 2014 showed the Harris County District Attorney initially listed one reason to pursue the death penalty in Ayestas’ case was his immigration status: he was living in Houston illegally.

Now, after almost 20 years on death row, 47-year-old Ayestas' case will be reviewed by the nation’s highest court. In the case, Ayestas claims the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly denied him resources to investigate and produce evidence that his previous lawyers failed to raise in trial and state appeals. (In his petition to the high court, he also raised the issue of the Harris County memo, but the court denied it a hearing.)

"Mr. Ayestas’s case is about the right to be fairly charged and defended. From the charging decision through the federal habeas process, Mr. Ayestas has been denied his constitutional right to nondiscriminatory treatment and effective representation," Ayestas’ lawyers Lee Kovarsky and Callie Heller said in a statement after the court's decision. "...We look forward to appearing before the Supreme Court and have faith that the Fifth Circuit’s decision denying him a meaningful opportunity to be heard will be reversed."

The Texas Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the case.

During his trial in 1997, Ayestas’ lawyer provided little evidence to try to persuade jurors that her client should be spared from a death sentence, according to Ayestas’ petition to the Supreme Court. His lawyer brought forth only positive recommendations from his prison English teacher.

“Despite her awareness of a history of substance abuse and red flags for mental health problems, trial counsel’s preparation was delayed, rudimentary, and proceeded on a timeline inconsistent with her explanation that she throttled investigation on Mr. Ayestas’ instruction,” Kovarsky wrote in the petition.

The state has argued this lack of evidence is Ayestas’ fault alone, since he instructed his lawyer not to contact his Honduran family until jury selection began.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Texas Tribune, Jollie McCullough, March 3, 2017

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