By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a convicted murderer held on Alabama's death row for three decades who argued 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. They sent the case back to lower courts to determine if McWilliams' death sentence will stand in light of the decision.
McWilliams became the third black death row inmate the Supreme Court has backed in recent months in cases that civil rights advocates say expose problems in America's criminal justice system that disproportionately affect minorities.
The justices 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 Supreme Court ruling in a case called Ake v. Oklahoma stating 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.
The court's four liberals were joined by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy in siding with McWilliams in the ruling written by Justice Stephen Breyer, with the other four conservatives dissenting.
"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," said McWilliams' lawyer, Stephen Bright.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican, called the ruling "an affront to the rule of law" because the court had decided a legal question the parties had not argued.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito made a similar point in his dissenting opinion, which was joined by three of the court's other conservatives.
Bright argued that McWilliams was mentally ill, saying 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.
The justices twice this year have ruled in favor of Texas death row inmates. The court found on March 28 that Texas used an obsolete standard to assess whether convicted murderer Bobby Moore was intellectually disabled and exempt from capital punishment.
The court on Feb. 22 gave convicted murderer inmate Duane Buck the chance to avoid execution because his trial was tainted by testimony from a psychologist who stated Buck was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black. Chief Justice John Roberts denounced the "noxious strain of racial prejudice" seen in the case.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)