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Kenya Law / Blog / Case Summary: Supreme Court of United States declares that a criminal defendant’s right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney’s performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness

Supreme Court of United States declares that a criminal defendant’s right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney’s performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness

Supreme Court of United States declares that a criminal defendant’s 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.

Supreme Court of the United States

Anthony Ray Hinton V. Alabama

On Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the

Court Of Criminal Appeals of Alabama

Per Curiam

February 24, 2014

Reported by Vellah Kedogo

BRIEF FACTS

Two Alabama restaurant managers were murdered during robberies in 1985, and a third manager who survived a similar robbery identified his assailant (the accused) from a photo. Police recovered two .38 caliber bullets at each scene, and they recovered a .38 caliber revolver at accused’s house when they arrested him. The revolver belonged to his mother who lived with him. Investigators concluded that the revolver had fired all six bullets. Accused 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, must have misidentified his assailant since accused had an alibi of being at work during the third robbery.

Accused’s attorney needed to rebut expert testimony matching the crime-scene bullets to accused’s gun, but he did not take the court up on its offer for funding beyond the initially granted allotment of $500 per case. He 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. Prosecutors badly discredited accused’s expert on cross-examination.

After his conviction, accused 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 held that the circuit court needed to determine whether accused’s expert was qualified to testify. The circuit concluded that the expert was indeed qualified, and accused’s subsequent appeals failed. The accused brought this appeal to the Supreme Court.

ISSUES

  1. Whether attorney’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.
  2. Whether there was a reasonable probability that, but for attorney’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Law of torts- tort of negligence- legal malpractice- breach of standard duty of care- whether attorney’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness- whether there was a reasonable probability that, but for attorney’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Amendment VI of the United States Constitution

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

HELD

  1. The proper measure of attorney performance remained simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms. Under that standard, it was unreasonable for accused’s attorney to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was capped at $1,000.
  2. The trial attorney’s 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 attorney had a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary.
  3. An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that was fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point was a quintessential example of unreasonable performance. The inadequate assistance of the attorney was the inexcusable mistake of law—the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him—that caused attorney to employ an expert that he himself deemed inadequate.
  4. If there was a reasonable probability that accused’s attorney would have hired an expert who would have instilled in the jury a reasonable doubt as to accused’s guilt had the attorney known that the statutory funding limit had been lifted, then accused was prejudiced by his lawyer’s deficient performance and was entitled to a new trial.
  5. The fact that the State presented testimony from two experienced expert witnesses that tended to inculpate accused did not, taken alone, demonstrate that accused was guilty. Prosecution experts, of course, could sometimes make mistakes. Because no court had yet evaluated the prejudice question by applying the proper inquiry to the facts of the case, the case was to be remanded for reconsideration of whether accused’s attorney’ s deficient performance was prejudicial.

Orders

The petition for certiorari and Hinton’s motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis was granted, the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

 

RELEVANCE TO THE KENYAN SITUATION

In Kenya an advocate is not liable for any reasonable error of judgment or for ignorance of some obscure point of law, but is liable for gross negligence or ignorance of elementary matters of law constantly arising in practice. This rule has been established in the case of Moses Kipkolum Kogo V Nyamogo & Nyamogo Advocates [2003] eKLR and National Bank of Kenya Limited V E. Muriu Kamau & another [2009] eKLR. This implies that the fact the negligence must be so gross advocates who are negligent in handling their clients matters escape liability.

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