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Justices Debate Semantics in Death Penalty Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

If your life were in the balance, it could be disconcerting to hear a debate over semantics.

Like doctors arguing in surgery about whether robots will take their place in the operating room, the debate might be interesting, but not when you're bleeding out.

So it was interesting to court watchers that U.S. Supreme Court Justices were arguing about whether two phrases meant the same thing. It was a death penalty case.

"Reasonably Necessary"

It mattered most of all to Carlos Manuel Ayestas, a Texas inmate who had appealed the denial of money for investigators and experts in his case. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said there must be a "substantial need" for the money in Ayestas v. Davis.

He said the court should have considered whether the expenses were "reasonably necessary" instead. Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. set up the debate.

"What is the difference between 'reasonably necessary' and 'substantial need?'" he asked. "I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can't think of an example.'

That sparked a reaction from justices who said "reasonable necessary" means what a reasonable lawyer with limited resources as opposed to a lawyer with unlimited resources would need.

"Substantial Need"

Alito responded that lawyers in capital cases might "devote those finite means to an avenue of investigation that has very, very little chance of success because there is so much at stake."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the defendant might have only one option. She said it was a "horrendous murder."

"The only chance in the world that this defendant has is if he can put on a mitigation case and convince one juror he shouldn't get the death penalty," she said. "There is nothing else."

That comment might have troubled Ayestas, if he were there. He is in jail for murdering an elderly woman during a home invasion.

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