On October 17, 2008, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who has spent over 20 years on Alabama’s death row for crimes he did not commit. The court ruled that the case must be sent back to the trial court to make findings about whether Mr. Hinton received the expert assistance to which he was entitled.
Mr. Hinton was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death based on the State’s theory that a gun seized from Mr. Hinton’s mother’s house fired bullets collected from two murders and one attempted murder of fast-food restaurant managers in the Birmingham area.
At trial, Mr. Hinton’s court-appointed lawyer presented a defense witness to testify that the bullets did not match the Hinton weapon. The witness was blind in one eye and did not know how to operate a comparison microscope, and was mocked and discredited as a “charlatan” by the prosecutor.
Mr. Hinton was poor, and his lawyer thought the half-blind witness was the only one he could afford to hire.
In state postconviction appeals, Mr. Hinton presented evidence from nationally-renowned experts (who testify almost all of the time for the prosecution) that the collected bullets cannot be matched to the Hinton weapon. In fact, the Hinton gun could not have fired the bullet from the attempted murder, which police used to link Mr. Hinton to the two murder cases.
This new evidence proved Mr. Hinton is innocent. The trial court denied Mr. Hinton’s claim, however, and the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed in a 3-2 decision that Mr. Hinton was not entitled to relief.
The Alabama Supreme Court reviewed Mr. Hinton’s claim that his trial lawyer was ineffective for presenting an incompetent witness.
Its decision requires the trial court to make additional factual findings about whether that witness was a qualified expert. Should the court find the witness was incompetent, Mr. Hinton will be entitled to a new trial.