SCOTUS Ruling Could Mean New Trial for Ala. Death Row Inmate

By William Peacock, Esq. on February 26, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Three restaurant robberies. Two bullets fired at each. One surviving victim.

Anthony Ray Hinton was the triggerman ... maybe.

According to the original appellate case opinion, the surviving witness, as well as others, identified Hinton as the perpetrator of the third robbery. (He was neither indicted nor convicted for the robbery, but was convicted and sent to death row over the two prior murders.) Then again, his boss and other witnesses claim that he was working in a locked, secured warehouse at the time of the robbery.

The key piece of evidence was a .38 caliber handgun found in his home, one that the state's experts said matched the recovered bullets. Hinton's one-eyed, inexperienced expert, bought on a Walmart budget due to his attorney's mistake regarding state funding for defense costs, failed to convince the jury otherwise.

Hinton better hope the next expert is better equipped for the job, as a new trial seems likely after yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, twenty-eight years after his original conviction.

RTFS -- Read the Freaking Statute

To be fair, this was 1985. They didn't have WestLaw, FindLaw, or Google. Checking to see if a statue had been updated would've required walking to the law library and opening a book.

The judge said that he thought the statutory maximum for reimbursement for expenses was $500 per charge, for $1,000 total, though he invited the defense attorney to file a motion for more money, stating, "if it's necessary that we go beyond that then I may check to see if we can, but this one's granted."

Even in those days, that wasn't squat. The defense counsel never filed a motion, and instead tried to find a competent expert for $1,000. The best he could come up with was a guy with a civil engineering degree who had only testified twice as a firearms expert in the previous eight years, needed help operating the microscope at the state lab, and only had one eye.

He was embarrassed on the stand by the prosecutor, and one can imagine how much the jury credited his testimony against the state's two experts who were certain that the bullets came from Hinton's gun.

The statute, by the way, was updated in 1984 to state:

"Counsel shall also be entitled to be reimbursed for any expenses reasonably incurred in such defense to be approved in advance by the trial court."

Today's Experts

To show prejudice, Hinton hired three experts to analyze the gun and bullets. All agree: they could not conclude the the bullets were fired from that revolver. One, pursuant to the ethics code of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners, asked one of the state's original experts to show him how he made the original determination. The state's expert refused.

Unreasonable Performance

Calling this a "straightforward application of our ineffective-assistance-of-counsel precedents," the Court noted that "[a]n attorney's ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland."

But, the court keeps its holding narrow by clarifying that a bad expert alone won't meet the Strickland v. Washington standard.

"We wish to be clear that the inadequate assistance of counsel we find in this case does not consist of the hiring of an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough. The selection of an expert witness is a paradigmatic example of the type of "strategic choic[e]" that ... is "virtually unchallengeable," the per curiam court noted.

"The only inadequate assistance of counsel here was the inexcusable mistake of law--the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him--that caused counsel to employ an expert that he himself deemed inadequate."

No Retrial Yet

The Court stopped short of ordering immediate relief and remanded the case for consideration of whether Hinton's attorney's mistake prejudiced him, though the court did hint that "[t]his threat [of a false conviction] is minimized when the defense retains a competent expert to counter the testimony of the prosecution's expert witness."

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