An illegal alien killer on Texas death row for nearly 20 years will get to appeal his death sentence before the U.S. Supreme Court. Carlos Ayestas, a Honduran who was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1995 strangulation murder of a 67-year-old woman during a robbery at her Houston home, is claiming he had ineffective legal counsel. Ayestas argues his attorney didn't present evidence of mental illness and drug addiction that could have convinced a jury to spare his life. A federal appeals court rejected his claim, but last week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, tells KTRH he believes Ayestas has a weak case. "This is a brutal murder--strangling someone to death is not something you do by accident, and so I think the guilt of the defendant is not in question...they're monkeying around on the periphery," he says. Rushford notes that the high court has been taking up more of these death row cases since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year, including another Texas case involving questions about the state's standards for determining an inmate's mental capacity. "This is what happens when you don't have some balance on the court," says Rushford.
While an 8-member high court agreed to take up Ayestas' case, it will be a 9-member court that hears it, now that Neil Gorsuch has been sworn in to replace Scalia. Rushford hopes the 'new' Supreme Court will limit its review of death penalty cases to when there is an actual question of guilt, rather than arguments about sentencing after the fact. "There are two sentences for these kinds of crimes--life in prison without possibility of parole and death, and they're both appropriate," he says. "And the jury was the best one to make that decision, so let's not go back and turn that over...leave it alone."