The United States Supreme Court didn’t even need to hold an oral argument to know that Alabama had denied Anthony Ray Hinton his constitutional rights. Monday morning, in a unanimous, unsigned opinion, the justices agreed that Hinton’s trial lawyer had been so manifestly incompetent that the death row inmate’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it took our nation’s courts more than 25 years to bring a measure of justice to this man — and he’s still not through yet with Alabama’s manifestly unjust justice system.
The sad story is familiar to anyone who follows the arc of capital cases in the Deep South. Hinton, a black man, was convicted in 1988 of two murders based upon unreliable eyewitness testimony and the admission at his trial of a single piece of physical evidence. Prosecutors took bullets found at the crime scenes and linked them to a revolver they found in Hinton’s home. The police found no fingerprints at the crime scene linking Hinton to the crimes. They found no incriminating evidence at his house. “The State’s case turned,” the justices wrote Monday, “on whether its expert witness could convince the jury that the six recovered bullets had indeed been fired from the Hinton revolver.”
You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that Hinton’s chance for an acquittal, in turn, rested on his ability to find an expert who could counter the state’s expert testimony about a link between the weapon and the bullets. And, indeed, Hinton’s lawyer asked the trial judge for money to hire an expert. The judge gave this lawyer the authority to spend a total of $1,000—$500 for each of the murder charges then pending against Hinton. This was all the defendant was entitled to at the time under Alabama law, the judge said, but he invited Hinton’s attorney to ask for more money. It turns out, however, that the judge was wrong about the law and its limit on expert expenses. And Hinton’s lawyer never even checked to find out.
So Hinton went to trial with a man named Andrew Payne as his expert, a man called to testify as an expert on firearms and ballistics in a capital case who had no training in firearms or toolmark identification. Payne, in fact, had no prior experience whatsoever comparing a gun to a bullet of unknown origin. When he had testified in court on most previous occasions, he declared at Hinton’s trial, it was about radio antenna and electrical lines. At trial, the prosecution’s expert witnesses pounced on Payne’s lack of experience. He’ “no expert at all,” prosecutors told the jury. And the jury believed them. Hinton was swiftly convicted and sentenced to death.
You still don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that Hinton’s conviction, in these circumstances, was marred by three fundamental errors. First, his lawyer negligently failed to check to determine whether he could ask the judge for more money to find a competent expert (and then failed to ask for more funds). Second, the expert that this attorney was able to find was, predictably for that amount of money, grossly incompetent. And, third, the trial judge whose erroneous evaluation of the law caused the problem in the first place, was unable and unwilling to do anything about it. The fact pattern here is like the script of “My Cousin Vinnie” only without the happy ending. Hinton was doomed from the very start.
Those are the facts. They are not in dispute. All that happened a quarter of a century ago to an indigent black man charged with murder in Alabama. And, since then, the state has gone to extraordinary lengths — thousands upon thousands of hours, I reckon, and many hundreds of thousands of dollars — to justify and defend the inexcusable result in this case. Not just all the state court judges who rubber-stamped this verdict and sentence even after they became aware of the fact that Hinton had neither a competent attorney nor a competent expert. But the state attorneys who filed brief after brief arguing that this result was fair and just, that it was accurate and worthy of respect.
Over and over again for 15 years, those state officials have been asked by Hinton’s lawyers to reexamine the case; to ponder anew what the result might be if Hinton were to have had an expert who knew what he was talking about. Over and over again, Alabama refused to walk away from this verdict. So the surprise here is not that the justices in Washington decided that Alabama could not fairly execute Hinton in these circumstances. But rather that it took them so long to do so. The unconstitutional dimensions of Hinton’s trial were obvious in 1988. And it took him 25 years — living on death row in a state that still executes its condemned — to be vindicated.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Hinton v. Alabama is only 13 pages long and it’s worth reading for many different reasons. For example, it’s obvious that the Court, even as it granted relief to Hinton, did so reservedly, almost apologetically, warning him and everyone else all along the way just how rare such relief is. There was no acknowledgment of Alabama’s role in the injustice. There was no admonition to state court judges (and prosecutors) contemplating such trials in the future. “We wish to be clear,” the Court wrote, “that the inadequate assistance of counsel we find in this case does not consist of the hiring of an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough.” And then, as if the message weren’t clear enough, the justices added:
“We do not today launch federal courts into examinations of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired. 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 and expert that he himself deemed inadequate.” (emphasis in original).
Ponder that for a moment. What the Supreme Court is saying is that Payne’s testimony alone, as patently incompetent as it was, would not be enough to give Hinton any relief. It is suggesting that the result here might be different if Hinton’s attorney, whom the justices plainly believe was incompetent, had believed that Payne’s testimony was adequate. Mostly, what this honorable court is saying is that it doesn’t want the federal judiciary tasked with the burdensome chore of ensuring that capital defendants received competent expert testimony on their behalf. That would mean laboriously going back over hundreds of cases and facing the ugly truth: that many people sit on death row today in circumstances precisely like the ones Hinton faced at trial.
Read Hinton and then take the time to read Alabama’s brief in opposition to certiorari asking the justices not to get involved in the case. Read how the state now thinks Andrew Payne is the bees’ knees. Read how the Supreme Court denied relief in this case in 1989 — how the justices could have prevented an injustice way back when. Read how comfortable state attorneys are even today in pledging fealty to this verdict. Read these two documents and tell me that you think that Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who has been on death row for 25 years now, is guaranteed to get a new trial and a fair shot at justice in Alabama even now.