Monday, February 24, 2014

Bulletin: Anthony Ray Hinton: Alabama; U.S. Supreme Court pays a visit to the world of forensic science - and finds a defence lawyer providing constitutionally deficient representation; American Bar Association;

STORY: "Lawyer who didn't know about permissible expert-witness was ineffective, SCOTUS says," by reporter Debra Cassens Weiss, published by the American Bar Association Journal on February 24, 2014.

GIST: "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).........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 entire story can be found at:

See Wrongful Convictions Blog:"Interesting SCOTUS forensics Case: "Today, in Hinton v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court found the trial attorney’s failure to request funding for a sufficient expert to challenge the State’s ballistics experts constituted ineffective assistance of counsel."

See: Equal Justice Initiative: "Although Mr. Hinton was never charged with this third crime, state lab technicians stated that bullets recovered from all three crimes were fired from the same weapon and claimed that they matched a weapon recovered from Mr. Hinton’s mother. Based on this gun evidence, the state charged Mr. Hinton with the two murders even though there was no other evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the crimes. In 1999, EJI took on Mr. Hinton’s case. In June 2002, three of the country’s top gun experts testified that they had examined the state’s evidence and concluded that the crime bullets could not be matched to the weapon recovered from Mr. Hinton’s mother and that the state had erred in making that claim. The trial court did not rule on the evidence of Mr. Hinton’s innocence for over two years and then signed an order prepared by the state denying relief to Mr. Hinton, in part because the evidence of innocence presented was “too late.” EJI appealed the court’s order and sought relief from the Alabama Supreme Court. The Alabama Supreme Court granted certiorari to review only one issue: whether Mr. Hinton’s rights to effective legal representation were violated when his appointed trial lawyer hired a retired civil engineer to testify about the gun evidence at trial. The prosecutor, judge, and defense counsel knew that Mr. Hinton could not have been convicted unless the jury believed the state's forensic experts' testimony that microscopic markings on the bullets showed they were all fired from Mrs. Hinton's gun. Mr. Hinton's lawyer testified later that he could not find a qualified firearms expert for the money the trial court allotted to him, so he put on a man who agreed to do the case for free, but who had never done forensic firearms analysis, whose experience with guns was limited to working with heavy artillery in the military around World War II, who did not know how to operate the comparison microscope needed to examine the evidence, and had only one eye. The prosecutor at trial characterized him as a charlatan who was "no expert at all." In 2008, the Alabama Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether this defense witness was a qualified and competent expert in forensic firearms identification. The judge who presided over the trial and postconviction proceedings retired, and a new judge -- without hearing any new evidence about the witness's qualifications -- decided that the witness was qualified because he knew more about guns than the average person on the street."


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