Supreme Court reinstates murder conviction, says 6th Circuit ignored 'ample evidence'
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the murder conviction of a Tennessee death-row inmate accused of killing a motel maid, ruling that a federal appeals court had relied on a “fanciful theory” to grant him a new trial.
The high court ruled against convicted murder Anthony Darrell Dugard Hines in a summary reversal of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented but did not write an opinion.
The Supreme Court said the 6th Circuit ignored “ample evidence” supporting the conclusion of the Tennessee court that refused to disturb the conviction.
Hines was found guilty in 1986 of murdering Katherine Jenkins, who was left in charge of the CeBon Motel outside Nashville, Tennessee, on the day of the murder. Witnesses saw Hines fleeing in Jenkins’ car and wearing a bloody shirt, according to the Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion. He was picked up by travelers on the side of the road by Jenkins’ broken-down car.
After arriving at home, Hines admitted to his family that he stabbed someone at the motel, but he spun “ever-changing stories about tussling with imaginary assailants,” the Supreme Court said. He also told his sister that he had acquired a substantial sum of money.
The 6th Circuit ruled in May 2020 that Hines was entitled to a new trial and sentence. The appeals court said Hines’ lawyer had failed to reveal that the man who found the body, Kenneth Jones, was at the motel because he was having an affair. At trial, Jones said he stopped by the motel on the afternoon of the murder, found that no one was there, and helped himself to a set of keys because he had to use the bathroom.
Hines’ lawyer “stressed to the jury this oddly fortuitous sequence of events” involving Jones’ discovery, the Supreme Court said.
Jones later admitted when the case was under post-conviction review that he was at the motel for a weekly rendezvous with a woman who was not his wife. After waiting for a hotel attendant, Jones finally helped himself to a room key and discovered the body. His companion, who was waiting in the car, confirmed the story. Jones called authorities, drove his girlfriend home, and returned to the motel to meet authorities.
The 6th Circuit concluded that a better investigation could have credibly cast Jones as an alternative suspect or at least undermined his testimony. A competent lawyer would have presented the full truth about Jones’ affair and blamed him for the murder, Hines argued.
“Missing from this analysis, however, was the voluminous evidence of Hines’ guilt,” the Supreme Court said. “The 6th Circuit had no license to hypothesize an alternative theory of the crime in which Jones became a suspect 35 years after the fact—much less rely on that fanciful theory to grant relief.”
In a footnote, the Supreme Court said there is little merit to the 6th Circuit’s speculation that jurors might have blamed Jones if they had heard the full story.
“After all, the story Jones told at trial was in many ways more suspicious than the truth,” the footnote said. “According to his initial account, Jones fortuitously stopped by the motel, hung around outside, and then stumbled upon the body. All without a witness to verify his actions.”
The Volokh Conspiracy noted the Supreme Court’s March 29 decision. At one time, the Supreme Court frequently reversed the 6th Circuit in habeas cases, often in summary opinions, the blog said.
“Thus, it seemed like old times this morning when the Supreme Court summarily reversed the 6th Circuit’s grant of a habeas petition in Mays v. Hines,” wrote the author of the blog post, Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Hat tip to SCOTUSblog, which noted the opinion.