Liberal US justices lean toward death row inmate in mental health dispute
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday indicated support for a convicted murderer held on Alabama's death row who argued he had a right to an independent medical expert to assess his mental health and potentially help him avoid the death penalty.

The nine justices heard a one-hour argument in an appeal brought by James McWilliams, who was sentenced to death for raping, murdering and robbing a convenience store clerk in Tuscaloosa in 1984.

The case has taken on greater importance in the past week because two Arkansas death row inmates who that state plans to execute, Don Davis and Bruce Ward, had their cases put on holding pending the Supreme Court's decision in the McWilliams case, due by the end of June.

Based on questions asked by the justices, the four liberals could be joined by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's frequent swing vote, in favoring McWilliams. The nine-member court's other conservatives appeared more likely to vote against McWilliams.

At issue in his appeal of his death sentence to the Supreme Court is whether an indigent defendant like McWilliams during a trial in which his mental health is a pivotal matter is entitled to an expert witness independent of the prosecution. Such an independent expert witness possibly could offering mitigating evidence at his sentencing hearing as prosecutors pursue the death penalty.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)