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A basic tenet of our system of justice is that every person facing criminal prosecution in America—whether rich or poor—deserves competent legal representation. That tradition is especially important for those facing the ultimate punishment when the quality of one’s lawyer and the availability of resources for that representation can determine who lives and who dies. In a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this month, the State of Texas asks the high court to reject this fundamental norm of our legal system.

The case centers on whether attorneys for a man on Texas’s death row, Carlos Ayestas, should be afforded the legal resources, such as an investigator, needed to examine their client’s background and mental health history in federal court. In short, because Ayestas is indigent, a federal district court in Texas has placed him in a Catch-22: He cannot afford to pay for his own investigator, so the court has ruled that he must first prove what an investigator would uncover in order to approve funding to hire that investigator in the first instance. And Texas is defending that decision at the U.S. Supreme Court this month.

To make matters worse, Mr. Ayestas now needs court approval for these resources only because Texas failed to provide him with an adequate lawyer when it mattered most: at trial. At his death penalty trial in state court, Ayestas’ court-appointed counsel did virtually nothing to investigate his client’s background and mental health. As a result, his lawyers presented only two minutes of mitigation evidence at the punishment phase of his trial. The jury then determined he should be sentenced to death — an unsurprising result given the paltry case for life made by the defendant’s own attorneys.

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