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Arkansas Death Row Inmates May Get Fresh Mental Health Evaluations Following Supreme Court Ruling

Arkansas Department of Correction

The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Alabama death row inmate has the right to a mental health evaluation from a neutral party. Previously, such evaluations were done by doctors within state government. 

In April, Arkansas inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward were granted stays of execution after asking for such independent evaluations.

In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Supreme Court decided Alabama death row inmate James Edmond McWilliams is entitled to a mental health evaluation by a neutral party who will then assist with his defense.

Previously, the state's evaluation, which the Supreme Court ruled was inadequate, was the only one McWilliams had to use.

Both Don Davis and Bruce Ward were given mental evaluations by state doctors but have asked for independent evaluations, and the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the state's evaluation was sufficient.

Davis' attorney, Deb Sallings, says the high court decision is a good sign for Davis. She says she'll request a new evaluation be done by someone who would help her team develop an argument. 

“It’s more than just a test for the defendant. It is an expert who assists the defense in presenting the case,” she said.

She said his mental evaluation at the state hospital was limited in scope.

“It was directed more at competency issues. Did he understand what he was doing at the time, and is he competent to stand trial?”

Sallings said Davis, who commanded a Rogers woman to her knees inside her own home, then executed her from behind with a handgun, experienced childhood abuse that should be further explored as a possible mitigating factor in his death sentence.

“How those kinds of things play into one’s mental condition is very important in assessing whether one should get life without parole or death, for instance. That’s not what the state hospital was here to do,” she said.

Davis' and Ward's executions were stayed in April by the Arkansas Supreme Court while the U.S. Supreme Court considered this case.

Sallings says briefs in Davis’ case are due next month and she will argue for a new evaluation.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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