Hinton v. Alabama provides excellent example of how knowing the law for your client can literally be a matter of life and death.
Anthony Hinton was accused of a double murder stemming from three restaurant robberies. The primary evidence against him was ballistics tests that seemed to match bullets from the crime scenes with a gun in Hinton’s home.
The defense lawyer wanted to hire an expert, but he was under the mistaken belief that the state would only pay up to $1,000 for an expert witness. However, the relevant statute had previously been amended to provide that defense lawyers are entitled to be “reimbursed for any expenses reasonably incurred in such defense to be approved in advance by the trial court.’” Both the trial judge and Hinton’s lawyer were mistaken about this, but the judge gave Hinton’s lawyer the opportunity to file a motion to request more funding, which he did not do.
As a result of this confusion, Anthony Hinton’s lawyer found a poor expert whose testimony was impeached by the prosecution on cross-examination. The jury believed the prosecution’s expert witnesses and Hinton was convicted.
During post-conviction proceedings, Hinton got new lawyers, who hired three expert witnesses, including the former head of the FBI Firearms Unit, who all testified that there was no evidence that the bullets found at the crime scenes matched Hinton’s gun. Hinton’s lawyer could’ve gotten funding to pay these experts under Alabama law. The Supreme Court described the oversight of Hinton’s lawyer as an “inexcusable mistake:”
Hinton’s attorney knew that he needed more funding to present an effective defense, yet he failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding for indigent defendants that would have revealed to him that he could receive reimbursement not just for $1,000 but for “any expenses reasonably incurred.” An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance [under Constitutional norms]. . . . . [the] 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 an expert that he himself deemed inadequate.
Interestingly, this case was decided per curiam, with no dissents from Scalia or Thomas, as generally happens when SCOTUS overturns a death sentence. This only tends to reinforce the gravity of the lawyer’s mistake.
But the defense attorney was not the only one who screwed up here. What is scary here is that both the trial judge and the attorney didn’t know the law. And when Hinton’s attorney called around to other lawyers to inquire about the less-than-stellar expert he’d found, nobody asked him why he wasn’t looking for a better expert, given that the State of Alabama would have paid for it. Alabama’s reimbursement statute was amended over a year before Hinton was arrested. You’d think somebody along the way would have pointed this out.
Cases like this can be tough for criminal defense attorneys to digest. On the one hand, we’re glad to see the Defendant get justice. And the reminder to “always check the statute” makes us better lawyers.
On the other hand, every criminal defense attorney fears the day that they miss something huge in a client’s case, and that mistake costs the client their freedom. None of us know our state’s Penal law word-for-word. None of us know our state’s Criminal Procedure law or the rules of Evidence word-for-word. There is just too much for any one person to know, and nobody can reasonably be expected to memorize it all.
But part of being an effective lawyer is knowing when to do your research. We correct for deficiencies in legal knowledge by knowing when to double-check the statute books. That’s part of knowing the law. It’s what our clients depend on us for. This is what I tell colleagues who are still in law school preparing to become lawyers. Your client is depending on you to know the law. It is impossible to know the contents of every single statute that might be relevant to your case. But you need to know when it’s time to dig a little deeper into the law books to get the answer.
Hinton v. Alabama demonstrates this vividly. When your client’s case comes down to challenging the credibility of the state’s expert witness, knowing how much money you can spend on a rebuttal witness is a big deal. Anthony Hinton has probably been sitting on death row for almost 30 years because his lawyer didn’t take the trial judge’s suggestion to ask for more funding to get better expert witnesses. He probably should have checked the statute after the judge said he wasn’t sure how much money the law allowed the court to grant the defense for expert witnesses. He had queues and he didn’t take them.
But hindsight is 20/20. Even seasoned lawyers can make mistakes like this from time to time. Just like most doctors will miss at least one diagnosis at some point in their life that costs a patient life or limb, most criminal defense attorneys will miss a legal issue at some point in their careers that costs their client their freedom. We just have to do our best to learn from others when it happens, and constantly work at refining our craft. We can’t always do everything we’d like in our clients’ cases. But we must be able to do enough. At the very least, “enough” means giving your client the best defense the law will allow. But you have to know what the law allows before you can give it to them.