U.S. Supreme Court

Lawyer who didn't know about permissible expert-witness fee was ineffective, SCOTUS says


A lawyer who was unaware that Alabama no longer capped expert-witness fees at $500 provided constitutionally deficient representation to his client, the U.S. Supreme Court has found.

In a summary disposition, the court sent the case of death-row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton back to a lower court to determine whether the poor performance was prejudicial. SCOTUSblog noted the per curiam decision (PDF).

Hinton was convicted for the 1985 murders of two restaurant managers in two separate robberies, according to the decision. A restaurant manager who survived a shooting in a third robbery picked Hinton’s picture out of a photographic array. Police searched the home Hinton shared with his mother and discovered a gun of the same caliber as the bullets used in the shootings.

The state never charged Hinton with the third restaurant shooting; alibi witnesses said he was at work at the time. At trial for the other two fatal shootings, the state linked Hinton to the third shooting through eyewitness testimony, and then argued that Hinton must have committed all three crimes because they were similar in nature and the same gun was used in all three crimes.

The state contended the bullets fired in all three restaurant robberies were fired from the recovered gun. Hinton’s lawyer was able to find just one rebuttal expert—one the lawyer himself deemed a poor choice—after a judge capped expert fees at $500 for each of the two murder cases.

The judge believed Alabama’s cap was still in effect, saying it’s “the statutory maximum as far as I know on this and if it’s necessary that we go beyond that then I may check to see if we can.” Hinton’s lawyer didn’t ask for more money, and didn’t know that Alabama law had been amended to allow reimbursement for expenses reasonably incurred.

The lone defense expert was “badly discredited” on cross-examination by the prosecutor, the opinion says. The expert’s expertise was in military ordnance, rather than firearms and toolmark identification, he admitted he had problems using the microscope at the crime lab, and his degree was in civil engineering, obtained more than a half century before the trial. The court highlights this portion of the prosecution’s cross-examination of the expert:

Q: Do you have some problem with your vision?

A. Why, yes.

Q. How many eyes do you have?

A. One.

On appeal, three new experts were unable to conclude the bullets came from the gun found at Hinton’s home. One of the state’s trial experts refused to cooperate with the defense experts on appeal.

The Supreme Court said the defense lawyer’s failure to request more funding constituted deficient performance. “We do not today launch federal courts into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired,” the opinion said. “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.”

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