STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that could determine the fate of two men on death row in Arkansas. Other death row inmates around the country are watching too. Here's the question. If a defendant's sanity is a big issue at the trial, is he entitled to an independent evaluation? Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 1986, James McWilliams was convicted of the rape, robbery and murder of a store clerk in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Today's case centers not on his conviction but his death sentence. A jury heard testimony from McWilliams' mother about his behavioral problems following a traumatic brain injury when he was a child. In rebuttal, the state put on a psychiatrist and psychologist who testified that McWilliams suffered from no serious mental illness. And the jury, by a vote of 10-2, recommended that he be put to death. Under Alabama law, however, a jury's recommendation is not binding on the judge.
So the critical sentencing hearing in the McWilliams case took place six weeks later and after the defense requested a neuropsychological evaluation of McWilliams. The report on that evaluation was produced two days before the hearing. It found that McWilliams had organic brain dysfunction as a result of injuries sustained as a child. As the hearing was about to begin, the state further produced the defendant's prison mental health records, 1,200 pages in all, showing, among other things, that McWilliams was being treated with psychotropic drugs. 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 judge denied the continuance and later in the day sentenced McWilliams to death, concluding the defendant was faking his mental illness.
The defense appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, noting that a year before McWilliams' trial, the justices, by an 8-1 vote, ruled that when an indigent defendant can show that his sanity is a significant factor at trial, the defense is entitled, at minimum, to have access to its own expert witness to help in the preparation of the mental health defense. Alabama contends the expert witness does not have to be independent of the prosecution. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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