The Arkansas Supreme Court today, in a 5-2 decision, rejected Death Row inmate Bruce Ward’s argument that he was entitled to the assistance of an independent psychiatrist in his defense.It lifted a stay of execution issued April 14, the day he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Attorneys for Ward, convicted in the 1989 slaying of store clerk Rebecca Doss, 18, argued that he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial. It cited a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling that he was entitled to an independent assessment of his competency and assistance from a competent psychiatrist. They say he is schizophrenic and delusional.

Ward’s conviction was reversed twice and affirmed again on a third appeal. On this, Ward has raised the argument for an independent analysis assistance, not the State Hospital finding that he was competent to be tried. He relied on a 2017 case from Alabama, the McWilliams case.

But the Supreme Court majority, in an opinion written by Justice Karen Baker, said the McWilliams case didn’t establish that an independent expert’s assistance was required. It’s true, the court said, a defendant must have a mental health evaluation And it recounted testimony about Ward’s mental health in past proceedings. But it rejected his argument that a new standard applied.

Advertisement

As a practical matter, the simplest way for a State to meet this standard may be to provide a qualified expert retained specifically for the defense team. This appears to be the approach that the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions have adopted.

…. It is not necessary, however, for us to decide whether the Constitution requires States to satisfy Ake’s demands in this way. That is because Alabama here did not meet even Ake’s most basic requirements.The dissent calls our unwillingness to resolve the broader question whether Ake clearly established a right to an expert independent from the prosecution a “most unseemly maneuver.” We do not agree. We recognize that we granted petitioner’s first question presented—which addressed whether Ake clearly established a right to an independent expert—and not his second, which raised more case-specific concerns. 

Justice Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack concurred with the decision but seemed to object the argument was even considered. They said Ward had not raised new issues except for the possibility they might be presented by further federal court decisions. The court should recall mandates sparingly, they said. Arkansas is too liberal in this regard, they said.

In dissent, Chief Justice Dan Kemp read the McWilliams case differently. He said that it meant the state must provide the assistance of a competent psychiatrist, not just an evaluation. He said Ward had requested that and been denied it. He said death cases deserved heightened scrutiny and he would continue to stay the execution. Justice Josephine Hart joined him in dissent.

Advertisement

CORRECTION: I said this ruling cleared the way for a new execution date, barring further appeals, but a separate court stay applies in a separate case over the power given the state Correction Department director to decide an inmate’s competency to be executed..