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Justices Give Death-Row Inmate a Shot at Relief

WASHINGTON (CN) - A man sentenced to death for a trio of robbery-shootings may be able to show that his attorney's deficiencies prejudiced him, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Two Alabama restaurant managers were murdered during robberies in 1985, and a third manager who survived a similar robbery identified his assailant as Anthony Hinton from a photo.

Police recovered two .38 caliber bullets at each scene, and they recovered a .38 caliber revolver at Hinton's house when they arrested him. The revolver belonged to Hinton's mother who lived with him. Investigators concluded that the revolver had fired all six bullets.

Hinton was charged with two counts of capital murder for the first two robberies, but not charged with regard to the robbery where the manager survived. The defense alleged that the manager who survived, identified in the ruling only as Smotherman, must have misidentified his assailant since Hinton had an alibi of being at work during the third robbery.

Hinton's attorney needed to rebut expert testimony matching the crime-scene bullets to Hinton's gun, but he did not take the court up on its offer for funding beyond the initially granted allotment of $500 per case.

The lawyer later testified that he failed to find a well-regarded expert willing to work for the price he was willing to pay. The only willing expert was not recommended by other lawyers in town, the attorney said.

Prosecutors "badly discredited" Hinton's expert on cross-examination, according to the ruling.

After his conviction, Hinton had claimed that his attorney was ineffective in failing to seek additional funds when the $1,000 allotted by the court proved insufficient to retain a qualified expert.

Eventually the Alabama Supreme Court said that the circuit court needed to determine whether Hinton's expert was qualified to testify.

The circuit concluded that the expert was indeed qualified, and Hinton's subsequent appeals failed until the U.S. Supreme Court summarily vacated the underlying judgment Monday with orders to reconsider "whether the attorney's deficient performance was prejudicial."

At issue is the 1984 ruling Strickland v. Washington, which holds that "a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney's performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and if there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different absent the deficient act or omission," according to the ruling,

In this case, the lower courts misapplied Strickland, the justices found.

"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,'" the opinion states. "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 Strickland."

In this case, the trial judge had believed that Hinton was entitled to up to $500 for each murder charge because an earlier version of the statute had limited state reimbursement of expenses to one half of the $1,000 statutory cap on attor­ney's fees.

But the amendment to the relevant statute that would have allowed Hinton's attorney to request more money went into effect on June 13, 1984, over a year before Hinton's arrest, "so Hinton's trial attorney could have corrected the trial judge's mistaken belief that a $1,000 limit applied and accepted his invitation to file a motion for additional funds," the ruling states.

"The attorney failed to do so because he was himself unaware that Alabama law no longer imposed a specific limit and instead allowed reimbursement for 'any expenses reasonably incurred.'"

It is important to note the limited scope of Monday's decision, the justices said.

"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 an expert that he himself deemed inadequate," they wrote (emphasis in original).

Hinton must show on remand that the deficient performance of his attorney prejudiced the outcome of his trial.

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