CARLOS MANUEL AYESTAS, also known as Dennis Zelaya Corea, Petitioner - Appellant
LORIE DAVIS, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS DIVISION, Respondent - Appellee
from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Texas
SMITH, SOUTHWICK, and HO, Circuit Judges.
REMAND FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
H. SOUTHWICK, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Manuel Ayestas is a prisoner on death row in Texas. We
previously affirmed the district court's denial of his
request under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f) for investigatory
funding because he had not shown a "substantial
need" that made the funds "reasonably
necessary" to the representation. The Supreme Court held
the statute does not require a showing of "substantial
need" and remanded with instructions to consider only
whether funding is "reasonably necessary."
conclude that investigatory funding is not reasonably
necessary because nothing would establish the ineffectiveness
of state-habeas counsel, a gateway requirement for him to
overcome the procedural default of his claim that his trial
counsel was ineffective for failing to present certain
mitigating evidence of substance abuse and mental illness.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
1997, Carlos Manuel Ayestas was convicted of murdering
Santiaga Paneque, a 67-year-old Houston woman, after he and
two accomplices broke into her home one morning.
Paneque's son discovered her body when he returned home
for lunch. He testified at sentencing that it had been
important to his mother that he become a United States
citizen, and that he had wanted her at his naturalization
ceremony, which occurred two days after her death. The Texas
Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Ayestas's conviction
and death sentence in 1998; that court denied his application
for a writ of habeas corpus in 2008.
previously described in detail Ayestas's federal-habeas
proceedings. Ayestas v. Stephens, 817 F.3d 888,
892-94 (5th Cir. 2016), vacated sub nom. Ayestas v.
Davis, 138 S.Ct. 1080 (2018). We explain here some
recent developments. In 2014, the district court denied
Ayestas's federal habeas application as well as his
ex parte motion for additional investigatory funding
pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f). With respect to the
Section 3599(f) motion, the district court recited
then-controlling precedent that Ayestas was required to show
a "substantial need" for investigative assistance,
as well as the statutory requirement that the assistance be
"reasonably necessary" to the representation.
See Brown v. Stephens, 762 F.3d 454, 459 (5th Cir.
2014); § 3599(f).
district court then denied multiple post-judgment motions,
including some based on a newly discovered "Capital
Murder Summary memorandum, prepared by the prosecution,
stating that Ayestas's lack of citizenship was an
'aggravating circumstance.'" Ayestas,
817 F.3d at 894. On appeal, we affirmed the denial of
Ayestas's motions for investigatory funding, to stay
proceedings to allow exhaustion of new claims in state court,
and to supplement his habeas application with new evidence.
Id. at 892. We also denied Ayestas's request for
a certificate of appealability to appeal the denial of his
habeas application. Id.
Supreme Court granted certiorari on the denial of
investigatory funding under Section 3599(f), then vacated and
remanded for further proceedings. Ayestas, 138 S.Ct.
1080. The Court rejected that an applicant must show a
"substantial need" or present "a viable
constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred."
Id. at 1093 (citation omitted). Instead, funding may
be reasonably necessary when it "stands a credible
chance of enabling a habeas petitioner to overcome the
obstacle of procedural default." Id. at 1094.
The Court instructed that "the 'reasonably
necessary' standard thus requires courts to consider the
potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to
pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful
and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant
will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the
contends that investigatory funding is reasonably necessary
to develop claims that his trial counsel was ineffective for
failing to present mitigating evidence of his substance abuse
and mental illness at sentencing. See Wiggins v.
Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003). A prison psychologist first
diagnosed Ayestas as schizophrenic in 2003 when his
state-habeas application was still pending.
review the district court's denial of a Section 3599(f)
motion for an abuse of discretion. Hill v. Johnson,
210 F.3d 481, 487 (5th Cir. 2000). "A district court
abuses its discretion if it bases its decision on an
erroneous view of the law or on a clearly erroneous
assessment of the evidence." Perez v. Stephens,
745 F.3d 174, 177 (5th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). When
reviewing for abuse of discretion, the "underlying
conclusions of law are reviewed de novo and
conclusions of fact are reviewed for clear error."
Aguilar-Ayala v. Ruiz, 973 F.2d 411, 416 (5th Cir.
1992) (citation omitted).
the Supreme Court's Ayestas decision, we have
remanded some Section 3599(f) denials for reconsideration by
the district court. E.g., Sorto v. Davis,
716 Fed.Appx. 366 (5th Cir. 2018). Remand is not required
"if the judgment is sustainable for any reason."
Af-Cap, Inc. v. Republic of Congo, 462 F.3d 417, 425
(5th Cir. 2006). For that reason, other panels have affirmed
pre-Ayestas denials where "the reasons the
district court gave for its ruling remain sound."
Jones v. Davis, 927 F.3d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 2019)
Section 3599(f) Motion for Investigatory Funding
district court denied the Section 3599(f) motion for these
reasons: Ayestas "fail[ed] to demonstrate that  trial
counsel was deficient,  that there [was] a reasonable
probability that his claimed evidence of substance abuse
would have changed the outcome of either his trial or his
state habeas corpus proceeding, or  that his state habeas
counsel was ineffective."
the district court's reliance on the first two reasons
abused its discretion under the standard described in the
Supreme Court's Ayestas decision are close
questions because of the district court's emphasis on
existing as opposed to potential evidence.
The district court's third reason for denying funding was
that state-habeas counsel was not ineffective. Ayestas must
establish that his state-habeas counsel was ineffective to
overcome the procedural default of claims based on failures
to present mitigating evidence of substance abuse and mental
illness. See Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U.S. 413 (2013).
If the district court's assessment of effectiveness is
valid, then the district court did not abuse its discretion
by denying funding regardless of any potential error in the
other stated reasons.
previously concluded that Ayestas's state-habeas counsel
was not constitutionally ineffective. Ayestas, 817
F.3d at 898. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has informed us
to consider "the prospect that the applicant will be
able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the
way." Ayestas, 138 S.Ct. at 1094. This means
assessing whether the investigation "stands a credible
chance of enabling a habeas petitioner to overcome the
obstacle of procedural default." Id. If no
credible chance exists, then the investigation is not
reasonably necessary regardless of the Wiggins
claims' viability or the likelihood of uncovering
admissible evidence. That is because "it would not be
reasonable - in fact, it would be quite unreasonable - to
think that services are necessary to the applicant's
representation if, realistically speaking, they stand little
hope of helping him win relief." Id.
State-Habeas Counsel's Effectiveness
question then is whether state-habeas counsel's decision
not to bring these specific claims fell outside of
"prevailing professional norms" given any signs
that mental illness and substance abuse went uninvestigated
by trial counsel and in light of the post-conviction claims
that were advanced instead. See Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).