The Alabama Supreme Court has again reversed the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who has spent more than 25 years on Alabama’s death row for crimes EJI contends he did not commit. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a challenge to Mr. Hinton’s conviction and death sentence in 2011 and EJI appealed the ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower appellate court used the wrong legal standard of review and sent the case back for re-evaluation under the correct standard.
Anthony Hinton was arrested in 1985 and charged with two separate shooting murders that occurred during robberies at two fast food restaurants near Birmingham, Alabama. The only evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the murders was testimony from state lab technicians who stated that bullets recovered from the murders and a third uncharged crime were fired from a weapon recovered from Mr. Hinton’s mother.
In 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.
After waiting more than two years, the trial court signed an order prepared by the state denying relief to Mr. Hinton. EJI appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court granted review to address 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. 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.
EJI appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which on August 26, 2011, upheld the trial court’s decision denying relief. In January 2012, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.
Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed again, holding that the Court of Criminal Appeals should not have deferred to the trial court’s ruling because the trial judge heard no new evidence and based her decision solely on the appellate record. The criminal appeals court must now re-evaluate the case using the correct standard of review.