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High court: State erred in denying poor defendant independent evaluation


  • The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington is seen June 7. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
  • The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington is seen June 7. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, said the state of Alabama erred in denying an indigent defendant now on death row a separate psychiatric evaluation that would assist in his own defense.

The ruling, issued June 19, overturned the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in 2015 in the case of James McWilliams, and returned it to that court for further review.

In 1985, McWilliams was arrested and charged with the 1984 rape and capital murder of a store clerk in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A month before his arrest, the high court determined in a ruling in Ake v. Oklahoma that the state was required to provide the defense with sufficient qualified personnel to conduct a separate psychological examination of an indigent defendant.

McWilliams was found guilty in 1986. For his sentencing hearing, he underwent psychological testing as requested by his defense attorneys, but the doctor's report did not arrive in time to be reviewed before a death sentence was handed down.

In its ruling in McWilliams v. Dunn, the Supreme Court said the petitioner "did not receive that assistance" as outlined in the Ake ruling, thereby "denying his lawyer the opportunity to translate these data into a legal strategy," said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority.

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