Hinton Decision ‘Important Victory’ for Right to Counsel

On February 24, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to return the case of Alabama death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton to state court to determine whether or not his lawyer’s failure to hire a competent expert witness unfairly prejudiced the case against him.

“This is an important victory for every person convicted of a crime without an adequate defense, and especially for those on death row,” said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project, in a press release.  Hinton was represented in his appeal to the Supreme Court by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative.

In a “friend of the court” brief filed last October, TCP argued that the failure to hire a qualified expert violated Hinton’s Sixth Amendment right-to-counsel, which may have “led to a miscarriage of justice, and caused an innocent man to be sentenced to death.”  TCP prepared its brief with the generous pro bono assistance from the law firm of Sidley Austin.

Hinton was arrested in 1985 and charged with two separate shooting murders that occurred during robberies at two fast food restaurants near Birmingham, Alabama. He was convicted of murder based solely on ballistic tests, which both the National Academies of Science and the FBI have determined to be scientifically unreliable. Hinton’s court-appointed lawyer recognized prior to trial that the expert he had retained to challenge the prosecution’s critical forensic evidence was not competent to do so, but wrongly believed he could not obtain the funds necessary to hire a better one.

TCP’s brief argued that the right to counsel encompasses the right to have counsel who is adequately educated about the scientific information that is involved in a defendant’s case, and that counsel is ineffective when he or she fails to engage a competent expert to rebut the testimony of the state’s expert. The Supreme Court agreed with TCP’s position without a hearing and without dissent.  It returned the case to the state court for a determination of prejudice.

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