Hinton v. Alabama – Easily Avoidable Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The United States Supreme Court decided Hinton v. Alabama, No. 13-6440 (Per Curiam), on February 24, 2014.  This case is a “must read” for all defense attorneys because it highlights the importance of some of the most fundamental requirements of competent representation of criminal defendants.  If nothing else, it is a very strong reminder to always remember the basics, including investigating ALL aspects of a case, understanding thoroughly ALL of the relevant statutes, and remaining current with applicable law.

This was a capital case arising from shootings that occurred during a series of robberies.  Ballistics evidence was the only physical evidence in the case.  The State’s case turned on whether its ballistics expert could convince the jury that six bullets recovered from the crime scenes matched a gun recovered from the defendant’s home.  Under the circumstances, it was clear that defense counsel required a highly qualified ballistics expert in order to raise doubt about the only physical evidence in the case.

Not surprisingly, defense counsel required public funds to pay for experts, and such payment was governed by statute.  Counsel believed that the relevant statute limited his available funding to a total of $1,000.00 under the circumstances, and sought approval for that amount from the trial court.  As to this issue, however, counsel was acting on outdated law.  In fact, the applicable statute contained no such limit, but rather provided that counsel could be reimbursed “for any expenses reasonably incurred in such defense to be approved in advance by the trial court.”  The trial court was uncertain about the maximum it could allow for defense experts, but invited defense counsel to seek reimbursement beyond the requested $1,000.00.  Defense counsel was not aware of the fact that the statute did not limit him to the requested $1,000.00, and did not take the trial court up on its invitation to file subsequent applications seeking additional funding.  Ultimately, defense counsel was able to locate only one expert that was willing to take the case for $1,000.00, and hired him because he believed he was “stuck”.  At trial, the defense expert testified that the toolmarks in the barrel of the gun were so corroded that it was impossible to conclude with certainty that a particular bullet had been fired from that weapon.  Cross-examination revealed the following about the defense expert: (a) He had only testified twice as a toolmark expert in the preceding eight years, and one of those cases involved a shotgun; (b) He had difficulty operating the microscope at the State police lab, and had to seek assistance from one of the State’s experts; (c) He had only one eye; (d) his experience was in military ordinance, not toolmark identification; and (e) he had graduated in 1933, with a degree in civil engineering.  During summations, the prosecutor asked the jury to reject the testimony of the defense expert because of the weakness of his qualifications relative to those of the State’s expert.  The jury apparently agreed, convicted defendant, and voted 10 to 2 for a death sentence.  The trial court sentenced defendant accordingly.

As part of his post-conviction  application, defendant produced three highly qualified toolmark experts, all of whom testified that they could not conclude that the recovered bullets had been fired from defendant’s gun.  Hearing testimony revealed further that the State’s trial expert refused to cooperate with the defense investigation conducted in connection with the post-conviction application.

Against this backdrop, and recalling its two-prong ineffective assistance test as set forth in Strickland v. Washington and Padilla v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court found that under the applicable standard for attorney performance (reasonableness under prevailing professional norms), it was unreasonable for defense counsel to fail to seek additional funds to pay for an expert when the failure stemmed from a mistaken belief that funding was capped.  Counsel’s performance was, therefore, deficient.  This finding was grounded in the following facts: (a) defense counsel knew his expert was sub-standard, but hired him anyway because he felt he had no choice; (c) counsel’s decisions arose from ignorance of current law; and (c) counsel failed to take the trial judge up on his invitation to seek further funding if he felt it was necessary.

Having established deficient performance, the Court moved on to the second prong of the test, which examines whether there was a reasonable probability that but for the deficient performance, the result at trial would have been different.  In other words, the Court asked whether defendant actually was prejudiced by counsel’s deficiencies.  In response, the Court found that “[i]f there is a reasonable probability that [defense counsel] would have hired an expert who would have instilled in the jury a reasonable doubt as to [defendant’s] guilt had [counsel] known that the statutory funding limit had been lifted, then [defendant] was prejudiced by his lawyer’s deficient performance and is entitled to a new trial.”  The Court then remanded the case for a finding on the second, or prejudice, prong of Strickland.

This case does not require lengthy discussion.  The Court’s opinion speaks largely for itself.  Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook or ignore the magnitude and potential impact of the errors here.  Everyone is under pressure to move their cases, and funding for experts in criminal matters almost always is a problem.  But in what was apparently a single-issue capital case where a defense expert was required to respond meaningfully to the sole issue, more was required from defense counsel.




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