“An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with the failure to perform basic research on that point” is ineffective assistance of counsel. Hinton was convicted of killing two Birmingham, Alabama restaurant managers in two after-hours robberies and sentenced to death. The only evidence linking Hinton to the killings were forensic comparisons by prosecution expert witnesses of the bullets recovered from the crime scenes to a revolver found in Hinton’s home, i.e., toolmark evidence. To rebut this evidence, defense counsel sought funding to hire an expert. The trial court granted $1,000, stating its belief it was limited to $500 for each murder charge; it invited counsel to apply for additional funds if needed. At the time, counsel was unaware that $500 was not the statutory maximum for defense expenses; the statute had been amended to provide for reasonable expenses with advance court approval. Trial counsel recognized that the only expert willing to take the case for $1,000 was not a good expert with respect to toolmark evidence, but he did not apply for more funds and hired the expert, Payne, anyway. At trial, Payne was badly discredited during cross-examination. In a state postconviction petition, Hinton claimed his trial attorney was ineffective to not seek additional funds to hire a qualified gun toolmark expert. After denial of his postconviction petition in state court, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Hinton’s certiorari petition and issued a per curiam decision. Held: Judgment vacated. Trial counsel’s representation was constitutionally deficient under Strickland due to his inexcusable failure to research the applicable state defense funding law. The “failure to request additional funding in order to replace an expert he knew to be inadequate because he mistakenly believed that he had received all he could get under Alabama law constituted deficient performance.”
The state court improperly applied Strickland’s prejudice standard. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that Hinton could not have been prejudiced by his attorney’s use of Payne rather than a more qualified expert because Payne provided favorable testimonythat the bullets used in the crimes could not have been fired from Hinton’s revolver. This was an improper application of the Strickland prejudice standard. Payne’s testimony would only have helped Hinton if the jury had believed it, but the jury did not believe Payne. The proper inquiry is whether “there is a reasonable probability that Hinton’s attorney would have hired an expert who would have instilled in the jury a reasonable doubt as to Hinton’s guilt had the attorney known that the statutory funding limit had been lifted.” If there is a reasonable probability, then Hinton was prejudiced by his attorney’s deficient performance. The right to a fair criminal trial is threatened when prosecution experts make mistakes and this threat is minimized when the defense retains a competent expert to counter prosecution expert witnesses.