Supreme Court Reinstates Death Sentence in Tennessee Murder Case

Reversing the Sixth Circuit, the justices ruled evidence in the case overwhelmingly supports the trial court’s conviction and sentence.    

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court sent a Tennessee man back to death row Monday morning in an unsigned order that held an appeals court was wrong to find his counsel was ineffective. 

The 8-1 decision stems from a decades-old murder conviction in which Anthony Hines was found guilty of raping, robbing and stabbing motel maid Katherine Jenkins in 1985.

“Witnesses saw Hines fleeing in the victim’s car and wearing a bloody shirt, and his family members heard him admit to stabbing someone at the motel,” the order states. “But almost 35 years later, the Sixth Circuit held that Hines was entitled to a new trial and sentence because his attorney should have tried harder to blame another man.” 

“In reaching its conclusion, the Sixth Circuit disregarded the overwhelming evidence of guilt that supported the contrary conclusion of a Tennessee court,” the justices added. 

Hines was first convicted of the crime in 1986, a year after the murder. Jenkins, an employee of the motel, was left in charge of the establishment while the owner was away. Hines had checked in during the early hours the night before, and later that morning another man, Ken Jones, checked in as well. 

A regular at the motel, Jones said no one was behind the counter so he took a room key and left a note for management before heading to a room. Upon opening up room 21, he discovered the body of Jenkins, stabbed and wrapped in a sheet. Police came and an investigation uncovered disturbing details that showed the maid was brutally stabbed in her private parts.  

Hours later, a group of college students found Hines stranded on the side of the road in Jenkin’s car. 

Hines said he’d hitchhiked his way into the stranded car with another man, but that story changed when he spoke to police. He admitted to stealing the vehicle but told officers he had no part in the murder.

He was arrested and eventually convicted of first-degree murder. On appeal to the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit, Hines argued his defense lawyer failed to note Jones had lied to police about his reason for being at the motel: to partake in a sexual encounter with someone other than his wife. 

James O. Martin, an attorney with the Middle District of Tennessee’s Office of the Federal Public Defender, called the dispute a “rare case” where Hines’ attorney put the interests of Jones’ illicit sexual affair not being exposed over the truth that should have made him a more likely suspect. 

“Defense counsel’s agreement not to embarrass Mr. Jones allowed the prosecution to present a false story to the jury,” Martin wrote in a brief opposing the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court. “Defense counsel’s agreement kept the jury from hearing significant evidence that would have shown Mr. Jones had opportunity and motive to kill Mrs. Jenkins.” 

In an unpublished 2020 opinion, the Sixth Circuit found the failure to raise Jones’ real reason for being at the hotel could have created a “reasonable probability that the sentencing jury would have reached a different verdict.”

Without prosecutors’ Supreme Court appeal, Hines would have gotten a new trial and a chance to put the crime on Jones instead.

But in the state’s petition to the high court, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery argued Jones’ testimony and claims of his involvement in the crime wouldn’t impact the outcome of the evidence-heavy conviction handed down by jurors more than three decades ago.

“The timeline of events Jones gave in his deposition varied slightly from his trial testimony thirteen years earlier, but the bottom line remained the same: Jones knew ‘nothing’ about the murder other than finding Jenkins’s body at the motel and reporting it,” Slatery wrote. 

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling was based on Strickland v. Washington, a 1984 Supreme Court decision which established a “reasonable probability” standard when reviewing ineffective assistance claims. 

“Counsel’s general duty to investigate… takes on supreme importance to a defendant in the context of developing mitigating evidence to present to a judge or jury considering the sentence of death,” then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority in that case stemming from a collection of Florida capital murder charges.

But in Monday’s order, the high court noted the weight of evidence was too much for questions about other parties’ possible involvement to create a different outcome. 

“The Tennessee court reasonably looked to the substantial evidence of Hines’ guilt. And it reasonably rejected the ‘farfetched’ possibility that Jones committed and self-reported a gruesome murder, in the presence of a witness, at a place where he was well known to the staff,” the order states.

The unsigned order noted Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented without comment. 

Attempts to reach Hines’ attorney or the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office for comment were not returned by press time.

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