Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Liberal Supreme Court Justices Rule in Favor of Murderer
The following article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 19th
Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Alabama Death Row Inmate. In a 5-4 decision, the court finds state failed to provide a murder defendant with a psychiatric expert who could contribute adequately to his defense.
By Jess Bravin
The Supreme Court on Monday said Alabama violated a murder defendant’s rights, finding that the state failed to provide him with a psychiatric expert who could contribute adequately to his defense.
The 5-4 decision, dividing largely along ideological lines, stopped short of declaring that defendants have a constitutional right to place such experts on their legal teams, the issue the court initially agreed to decide, leaving dissenters fuming that the majority flouted court rules to reach its consensus.
James E. McWilliams was convicted of having raped, robbed and murdered Patricia Vallery Reynolds, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., convenience store clerk, in 1986. On appeal, he contended Alabama violated his rights by rejecting his attorney’s pleas for a psychiatric expert to evaluate his medical record and potentially challenge the pre-trial finding by a state “lunacy commission” that he suffered from no mental illness.
The justices ordered an appeals court to review whether the failure to provide the expert assistance was so substantial an error as to void the death sentence.
At issue in the decision was the meaning of a 1985 precedent, Ake v. Oklahoma, where the court said an indigent defendant must “have access to the psychiatric examination and assistance necessary to prepare an effective defense based on his mental condition when his sanity” at the time of the crime in question.
Some legal authorities have said the decision was unclear in whether it required that trial courts place a psychiatrist on the defense team, or simply make a neutral expert available to the defense, potentially shared with the prosecution.
Monday’s opinion, by Justice Stephen Breyer, said it was unnecessary to decide whether the Ake precedent guaranteed Mr. McWilliams a dedicated expert.
“That is because Alabama here did not meet even Ake’s most basic requirements,” Justice Breyer wrote, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Justice Breyer observed that the defense didn’t receive Mr. McWilliams’s mental health records from prison until hours or days before sentencing hearings. When, on the morning of sentencing, a defense attorney protested that he needed more time and expert assistance to interpret the records, the judge gave him until 2 p.m.
When the hearing resumed, the judge ruled that Mr. McWilliams had been “feigning, faking and manipulative” in an attempt to show he was psychotic, and then sentenced him to death.
Without saying the Constitution required a dedicated expert for the defense, Justice Breyer wrote that “as a practical matter, the simplest way for a state to meet [the] standard may be to provide a qualified expert retained specifically for the defense team,” a practice that the “overwhelming majority of jurisdictions” follow.
Under a 1996 federal law intended to hasten executions, state sentences under review in federal court through a secondary process known as habeas corpus may be reversed if found to be “contrary to” or “an unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court’s majority Monday was unwilling to find that Mr. McWilliams’s sentence met that qualification, possibly because lower courts and legal commentators have found ambiguity in the Ake decision.
Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent accused the majority of a “most unseemly maneuver” to correct what it saw as an error in the McWilliams case without declaring it contrary to precedent.
Justice Alito observed that in accepting the case, the court specifically took the broad question presented and declined to consider the narrower issue of whether Mr. McWilliams’s trial met the Ake standard.
“It is certainly true that there is language in Ake that points toward the position that a defense-team psychiatrist should be provided,” Justice Alito wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and the court’s newest member, Donald Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch. “Other language in Ake, however, points at least as strongly in the opposite direction.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was also dissatisfied.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to resolve this case on a question that was not under review and was never briefed by the parties is an affront to the rule of law and, especially, deprives crime victims the opportunity to be heard,” Mr. Marshall said.
Stephen Bright, the lawyer who argued Mr. McWilliams’s case, applauded the ruling.
“Today’s decision is about fairness,” Mr. Bright said. “James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court. He was denied such assistance.”
"Conservative Republican" Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the 4 Marxists on the Court to once again spare the 31 YEAR resident of death row! Ed.