Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Executing The Innocent?

Bob Blalock asks why the state won't take innocence claims seriously. (h/t Captain Bama). The case of Anthony Ray Hinton, which I posted about here, brought the question to mind.

Blalock is correct when he says

I cannot know with certainty Hinton didn't pull the trigger of his mother's rusted, pitted .38-special and murder two fast-food restaurant employees and shoot another, who identified Hinton as his attacker. But it's hard to believe Hinton is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - the standard the law requires.

The only evidence linking Hinton to the murders (the identification was by an assault victim at another location) was testimony by the state's expert that the bullets that killed the victims were fired from a gun owned by Hinton. At trial Hinton offered his own expert, who contradicted the state's. Hinton also provided an Alibi: He was at work during the time the crime occurred. The jury accepted the state's version of the facts and convicted Hinton.

Now, though, he has three new experts who all reject the state's conclusions about the bullets. These guys are top notch. Hinton's trial expert wasn't worth shooting. He had no credentials and the state made him look like a charlatan to the jury.

The problem now is that Hinton has not offered 'new' evidence. He already presented evidence that the bullets did not match the gun. Now he is simply offering a stronger version of his previous argument. You are not allowed to do that, and the reason is obvious. Every attorney after arguing a case thinks of all sorts of ways they could have done it better: Different questions to ask; another witness to call; objections they could have made. If strengthening your case got you a new trial, no trial would ever end.

So that is why the state is not taking the innocence claim seriously. To the state it is just the moanings of a sore loser.

But should concerns for procedural finality outweigh concerns about life? Anyone who has taken a capital case through the appellate process knows that most of the issues are resolved, like Hinton's, not on the merits but by procedural rules. Procedural rules are important, and their importance is why we uphold them even when they occasionally create an unjust result. That is acceptable in civil cases, when the only cost is money, and even in normal criminal cases when the defendant will end up in jail. But what about when the unjust result is death? Of course life ought to trump procedures.

Unfortunately, I do not know if there is a good way to resolve the occasional conflict between procedures and justice. We live with the collateral costs of procedural rules in the civil and non-capital areas, but the cost here is a man's life. Maybe the answer is to just get rid of the death penalty. I have no problem with the assertion that some crimes deserve death. The issue is how to decide which ones. Hinton's case is one of many examples of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to resolve that issue.