WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a convicted murderer in Alabama who argued that he was entitled to an expert independent from prosecutors to gauge his mental health and possibly help him avoid execution.
The justices ruled 5-4 in favor of inmate James McWilliams, who was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of a convenience store clerk in Tuscaloosa. The court sent the case back to lower courts to determine if the ruling will affect McWilliams' conviction and sentence.
The court did not rule on the main question before them: whether indigent criminal defendants who may have a mental illness have the right to independent expert witnesses to testify in their defense, or whether court-appointed experts who offer findings to the prosecution and the defense are adequate.
Instead, the court found that Alabama had not met the basic standards set by a 1985 case called Ake v. Oklahoma, which said that indigent defendants are entitled to expert assistance. That ruling did not specifically say the expert had to be assigned to assist the defense as opposed to being an expert helping both sides.
Lawyers for McWilliams, who claimed he was mentally ill, argued the 1985 ruling clearly established a criminal defendant's right in appropriate cases to an independent expert to "assist in evaluation, preparation and presentation of the defense."
In the 1984 crime, McWilliams entered a convenience store, locked the doors, took money from clerk Patricia Reynolds, forced her into a back room, raped her, shot her 16 times with a pistol and left her to bleed to death. McWilliams, later caught driving a stolen car in possession of the murder weapon, was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1986.