Alabama Death Row Inmate Appeals to the US Supreme Court

  • Alabama Death Row Inmate Appeals to the US Supreme Court

Alabama Death Row Inmate Appeals to the US Supreme Court

At issue is whether an indigent defendant whose sanity is a significant factor in his trial, is entitled to assistance from a mental health expert witness who is independent of the prosecutors.

McWilliams was convicted of the 1984 rape, robbery and murder of convenience store clerk Patricia Vallery Reynolds in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The only real question was whether he would be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Arthur has maintained his innocence throughout his time on death row. McWilliams, later caught driving a stolen vehicle in possession of the murder weapon, was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1986.

Under Alabama law, however, a jury recommendation is not binding on the judge.

Because the case reached the court as a federal habeas corpus challenge to McWilliams' death sentence, he can win only if he can show that a state court's ruling against him was at odds with clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

The defense lawyer asked for a continuance; he said he needed the help of an expert witness, independent of the state, to evaluate those records and tests. The question before the justices is whether the 1985 decision "clearly established" McWilliams' right to an expert who would assist only the defense.

The Supreme Court justices were asked to give further interpretation of the court's 1985 decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, which said defendants have the constitutional right to the appointment of a mental health professional at the state's expense to help prepare an insanity defense.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted that a leading criminal law treatise had called the Ake decision "deliberately ambiguous" and that many lower courts had not understood it to require an independent expert.

"There's just not one holy seer who tells us what the mental health of a defendant is", he said. And, as exemplified by this very case, there are often discrepancies between experts' findings.

But some of the inmates who did not have that expert witness assistance at their trials remain on death row. Arthur's execution is scheduled for May 25.

Arkansas had planned to carry out eight executions in a span of 11 days. Two more executions were scheduled for later on Monday.

"All of the above", the company's lawyer Neal Katyal said, adding that it is harder to get cases thrown out of court before trial in California.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit The Arkansas Supreme Court recently stayed the execution of two men on its death row until the justices decide McWilliams v. Dunn. It found that McWilliams had organic brain dysfunction as a result of injuries sustained as a child.

"You can't work both sides of the street", he said. The judge denied the continuance and later in the day sentenced McWilliams to death, concluding the defendant was faking his mental illness.

The Supreme Court has shown little appetite for reconsidering whether the death penalty itself violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but has faulted the way some states handle capital punishment.