Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SCOTUS: Counsel Ineffective If Does Not Understand Resources Available to Hire Expert

Hinton v. Alabama, No. 13-6550 (U.S. Feb. 24, 2014) (per curiam)

Hinton’s guilt hinged on ballistics evidence and one eyewitness who identified Hinton as the person who robbed his restaurant and tried to kill him in 1985.  The State’s Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the six bullets all came from the Hinton’s gun.  Hinton’s attorney filed a motion for funding to hire an expert witness.  The trial judge granted $1000, stating that he did not know how much he could grant, thinking that it was $500 per case, and instructing the attorney to file another form if he needed additional experts.  In fact, there was not a statutory cap of $500 per case at the time of the trial; the law allowed for reimbursement for “any expenses reasonably incurred.”  Hinton’s attorney never asked for more funding, though.  Instead, he found an expert for $1000, recognizing that the expert did not have the expertise that the attorney thought he needed but thinking that was the best he could afford.  The prosecutor badly discredited the expert on cross-examination due to the expert’s lack of experience.
In his postconviction petition, Hinton produced three new experts who all examined the physical evidence and testified that they could not conclude that any of the six bullets had been fired from Hinton’s gun.  The circuit court denied the petition on the ground that Hinton was not prejudiced by the trial expert’s alleged poor performance because the trial expert’s testimony did not depart from what the postconviction experts said.  On remand from the Alabama Supreme Court, the circuit court also held that the trial expert was qualified to testify as a firearms and toolmark expert.
The Supreme Court finds that “[t]he trial attorney’s failure to request additional funding in order to replace an expert he knew to be inadequate because he mistakenly believed that he had received all he could get under Alabama law constituted deficient performance.”  The inadequate assistance was not hiring “an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough. . . . 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.”  The Court remands for reconsideration of whether the attorney’s deficient performance was prejudicial.
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