(CN) – The Supreme Court said Friday it will decide the fate of two death-row inmates whose cases hinge on procedural questions about ineffective legal assistance and court-appointed psychiatric experts.
James Edmund McWilliams Jr. challenges his death sentence for robbing, raping and killing convenience store clerk Patricia Reynolds in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1984.
Months before he murdered Reynolds, McWilliams attended couple’s therapy with his pregnant wife and underwent psychological testing, which found that he is “extremely disturbed” and “has much internal anxiety.”
While three doctors nevertheless concluded he was competent to stand trial, his defense counsel portrayed McWilliams during the penalty phase of his trial as someone who grew up with significant psychological problems. McWilliams and his mother testified that he sustained head injuries as a child and had a history of blacking out and hallucinating.
An expert appointed by the trial judge reported his findings simultaneously to the court, the prosecution and the defense two days before McWilliams’ sentencing hearing.
The expert diagnosed McWilliams with organic personality syndrome, but defense counsel did not have a chance to discuss the findings with the expert or learn what the diagnosis meant for the purposes of mitigation.
In July, McWilliams petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, arguing he was “precluded from meaningfully participating in the judicial sentencing hearing and did not receive a fair opportunity to rebut the state’s psychiatric experts.”
“Defense counsel had no opportunity to consult with the expert or have him review voluminous medical and psychological records that were not made available to the defense until the start of the sentencing hearing,” the petition states.
The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether an expert helping an indigent defendant in his defense should be completely independent of the prosecution.
In another case, Erick Daniel Davila was convicted in 2009 of killing Annette Stevenson and her 5-year-old granddaughter, Queshawn Stevenson, at a 2008 birthday party in Fort Worth, Texas.
Davila, a member of the Bloods gang, opened fire on guests who were on the porch using a semiautomatic assault rifle.
He confessed to driving by and deciding to “shoot ‘em up,” saying he was “trying to get the fat dude,” whose name he did not know. Multiple children and adults were shot, but only Stevenson and her granddaughter died from their injuries.
Prosecutors introduced aggravating evidence at Davila’s punishment phase, claiming he tried to escape from jail and committed another murder just two days before the birthday party shooting.
Unconvinced by the defense’s mitigation arguments, the jury returned a sentence of death. Davila’s requests for a writ of habeas corpus were denied by the trial court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
He then sought federal habeas corpus relief, arguing that his trial, appellate and state habeas counsel were ineffective. The district court denied him habeas relief and the Fifth Circuit denied him a certificate of appealability last May.
Davila filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court in September, arguing that the jury was improperly instructed on intent for capital murder. His attorneys argued he only intended to shoot his rival, not the grandmother and the little girl.
He argued the trial judge gave misleading jury instructions for intent, and his appellate counsel did not raise the charge-error claim. He also says his state habeas counsel did not raise the issue of ineffective appellate counsel.
Davila claims in his certiorari petition that a circuit split exists over whether defaulted ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims can be considered in federal habeas court, based on two prior Supreme Court rulings – Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler.
On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to answer whether the rule established in those cases – that ineffective state habeas counsel can overcome the procedural default of an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim – also applies to procedurally defaulted ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims.
Per its custom, the high court did not comment on its decision to take up Davila’s or McWilliams’ cases.