WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Alabama inmate was deprived of an independent mental health expert to help him try to stave off a death sentence at his trial more than 30 years ago.
The justices divided 5-4 in siding with inmate James McWilliams, and ordered a lower court to consider anew whether his death sentence can remain in place. McWilliams did not have his own expert when he was convicted of raping and killing a convenience store clerk in Tuscaloosa.
The outcome also could affect Arkansas death row inmates Bruce Earl Ward and Don Davis, whose executions were scheduled for April 17 and were halted over the same issue.
The justices had previously decided that poor defendants whose mental health might be a factor in the criminal charges they are facing have a right to an expert's evaluation.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court that McWilliams' mental health assistance "fell far short" of what the earlier case, Ake v. Oklahoma, required.
Prior to McWilliams' sentencing, a state psychologist appointed by the trial judge determined that McWilliams had "organic brain damage" and other problems stemming from earlier head injuries. The report was delivered to the inmate's lawyers two days before the sentencing hearing, followed by voluminous mental health records and a prison file showing that McWilliams was taking psychotropic drugs.
The judge refused a defense request to delay the hearing to digest the new material and sentenced McWilliams to death.
Most states, including Alabama, now routinely provide an expert specifically for the defense team, Breyer said.
But the court stopped short of saying such an arrangement is required by the Constitution.
The decision split the court between liberal and conservative justices, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining his more liberal colleagues.
In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said he would have upheld a lower court ruling in favor of Alabama. Alito said nothing in the Ake decision requires that a defendant be provided "an expert who functions solely as a dedicated member of the defense team.