The Alabama Supreme Court today reinstated a lower court’s order granting Emanuel Gissendanner a new trial based on defense counsel’s prejudicially ineffective pretrial investigation.
In 2010, the Dale County Circuit Court ordered a new trial after hearing compelling testimony from alibi witnesses, forensic experts, and family members that raised questions about whether Mr. Gissendanner committed the capital murder for which he was sentenced to death.
Mr. Gissendanner’s trial lawyers did not talk to these witnesses or obtain expert help for the defense at trial, even though the law required them to investigate the case fully. The circuit judge found that defense counsel were constitutionally ineffective for failing to investigate and prepare for trial.
The State appealed, and over two dissents, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the ruling and directed the trial court to reinstate Mr. Gissendanner’s convictions and sentences.
Mr. Gissendanner appealed, arguing that the Court of Criminal Appeals erred by completely disregarding the trial court’s findings.
The Alabama Supreme Court agreed. In today’s decision, it held that the criminal appeals court applied the wrong standard of review and erroneously failed to give considerable weight to the trial judge’s finding of prejudicial ineffective assistance of counsel.
In upholding the trial court’s findings that defense counsel’s failure to interview witnesses who could have testified that Mr. Gissendanner was somewhere else at the time of the crime was unreasonable under professional norms, the state’s highest court emphasized the importance of trial counsel’s duty to investigate.
“There is nothing as dangerous as a poorly investigated alibi,” the court wrote, quoting a federal appeals court decision. “An attorney who is not thoroughly prepared does a disservice to his client and runs the risk of having his client convicted even when the prosecution’s case is weak.”
Indeed, in Mr. Gissendanner’s case, the court found that defense counsel’s deficiencies “would have altered the entire evidentiary picture for the jury.”
The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and ordered it to reinstate the trial court’s order granting Mr. Gissendanner a new trial.