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On November 7, 2017, the Supreme Court heard argument in Ayestas v. Davis, a case involving the extent to which 18 U.S.C. § 3599, which allows indigent defendants to obtain “reasonably necessary” investigative services in connection with issues relating to guilt or sentencing, applies in the context of procedurally defaulted habeas claims.

Manuel Ayestas was sentenced to death for murder, and his conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1998. Ayestas then sought state habeas relief, claiming ineffective assistance of trial counsel because his attorney had failed to bring Honduras-based family members to Texas in order to testify to Ayestas’s good character and lack of criminal record in Honduras. The Texas state district court found that Ayestas’s trial counsel, though ultimately unsuccessful, had acted with reasonable diligence, and therefore denied habeas relief. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in 2008.

In 2009 Ayestas sought federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, claiming that his trial counsel had acted ineffectively by failing to properly investigate all potentially mitigating evidence. An effective investigation, Ayestas argued, would have uncovered his lack of a criminal record in Honduras, his schizophrenia, and his addiction to drugs and alcohol. The district court determined that Ayestas had procedurally defaulted this claim by failing to raise it in state habeas proceedings, and found no cause to excuse that default. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability.

In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Martinez v. Ryan that the ineffectiveness of state habeas counsel in failing to claim ineffective assistance of trial counsel may provide cause to excuse a procedural default. Although the Fifth Circuit denied Ayestas’s motion for a rehearing based on the Martinez ruling, the Supreme Court vacated that judgment and remanded Ayestas’s case for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Trevino v. Thaler, which made clear that Martinez applied in the context of Texas state procedures. The Fifth Circuit in turn remanded Ayestas’s case to the district court to reconsider his procedurally defaulted ineffective assistance claim in the first instance.

On remand Ayestas filed a motion for investigative assistance under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f), requesting a mitigation specialist in order to develop his broader ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim. In 2014 the district court denied habeas relief, concluding that neither Ayestas’s trial nor state habeas counsel had been constitutionally ineffective, and that a mitigation specialist was therefore not “reasonably necessary.” Ayestas thereafter moved to amend his federal habeas petition to add claims relating to a recently discovered prosecution memorandum suggesting that the push for capital punishment in Ayestas’s case was improperly motivated by his national origin. He also sought a stay in federal court until he exhausted these new claims in state court. The district court denied all relief and denied a certificate of appealability. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in all respects. 

The Supreme Court granted Ayestas’s  subsequent certiorari petition to address whether the Fifth Circuit erred in concluding that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) withholds “reasonably necessary” resources to investigate and develop an ineffective assistance of counsel claim that state habeas counsel forfeited, where the claimant's existing evidence does not meet the ultimate burden of proof at the time the Section 3599(f) motion is made. 

To discuss the case, we have Dominic Draye, Solicitor General of the State of Arizona.