Alabama Death Row Inmate Wins Supreme Court Appeal

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In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today in favor of an Alabama death row inmate who argued that he had been unfairly denied access to an independent mental health expert. The case involves James McWilliams, who was convicted in 1986 of the rape and murder of a store clerk in Tuscaloosa, Al. Only his death sentence, not his conviction, was being challenged in the high court. McWilliams has been on death row for more than thirty years for the rape and murder of Patricia Reynolds. A jury heard testimony from McWilliams’ mother about his behavioral problems after a traumatic brain injury when he was a child. The state called a psychiatrist and a psychologist who testified that McWilliams suffered from no serious mental illness but tried to fake illness in evaluations.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that under a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, “a defendant must receive the assistance of a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively ‘assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.’ ” Breyer added that in this case, “Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell … dramatically short.” Writing for four dissenters, including new Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Samuel Alito said the 1985 case had to do with whether the mental health expert in a capital case should be a member of the defense team or an independent expert. Alito accused the majority of deciding an issue that the Supreme Court had said it would not review.

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