March 01, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Finds Alabama Lawyer Constitutionally Negligent in Capital Case

On February 24, 2014, in a per curiam decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Alabama death row prisoner Anthony Ray Hinton’s trial counsel was ineffective under Strickland v. Washington for failing to seek funds to hire an expert witness. The case was remanded for a hearing to determine whether the negligence was prejudicial.

Mr. Hinton was convicted of committing a series of fatal robberies. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the crimes other than the testimony of prosecution experts who testified that all the bullets used in the robberies came from a gun belonging to Mr. Hinton’s mother. Although counsel for Mr. Hinton recognized that the outcome of the case would turn on the ballistics evidence, he mistakenly believed that he could not receive more than $1000 in court funding to hire a defense expert who could rebut the testimony of the prosecution’s experts. Counsel failed to conduct basic legal research that would have revealed his error, in that that defense counsel in Alabama were entitled to reimbursement for “any expenses reasonably incurred.” He also did not follow up on the suggestion by the trial judge to file a motion asking for additional funds. As a result, defense counsel hired the only expert willing to work for $1000, an inexperienced and weak witness whose testimony counsel himself “did not consider . . . to be effective.” The expert was discredited on cross-examination, and the jury voted 10-2 in favor of a death sentence.

In post-conviction proceedings, lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama found three highly qualified experts who testified that there was no evidence that the bullets used in the robbery had been fired from the revolver owned by Mr. Hinton’s mother. Despite this, the post-conviction court denied relief, a decision that was upheld by a closely divided Court of Criminal Appeals, then reversed and remanded by the Alabama Supreme Court. Mr. Hinton’s conviction and death sentence were ultimately affirmed on the holding that the weak and ineffective ballistics expert hired by defense counsel at trial was nonetheless “qualified” to testify.

Reversing this decision, the Court’s “straightforward” application of Strickland found counsel’s decision not to request additional funding for the ballistics expert to be unreasonable. The Court stressed 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.” Instead, the Court focused on the attorney’s mistaken understanding of the law: “the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him—that caused counsel to employ an expert he himself deemed inadequate.” The Court categorized the selection of a particular expert witness as the sort of strategic choice that is “virtually unchallengeable” because of the deference accorded to counsel under Strickland v. Washington. But because Mr. Hinton’s counsel “failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding,” the Court held that his choice of the expert in Mr. Hinton’s case could not have been strategic. Citing its previous jurisprudence, the Court held that “[a]n attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with the failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland.” Although an Alabama court will now decide whether this negligence constituted prejudice, the Court strongly suggested that it did. Mr. Hinton was prejudiced, the Court wrote, “if there is a reasonable possibility that Hinton’s attorney would have hired an expert who would have instilled in the jury a reasonable doubt as to Hinton’s guilt had the attorney known that the statutory funding limit had been lifted.”

Finally, as Mr. Hinton’s case demonstrated, the Court noted that prosecution witnesses also sometimes make mistakes. It acknowledged that “serious deficiencies” in the use of forensic evidence in criminal trials can contribute to wrongful convictions and create a “threat to fair criminal trials.” This threat, the Court concluded, “is minimized when the defense retains a competent expert to counter the testimony of the prosecution’s expert witnesses; it is maximized when the defense instead fails to understand the resources available to it by law.”