A woman convicted two years ago of beating her adopted son to death in 1974 may get a new trial after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday she was wrongly denied mental health records of her main accuser.
In an unanimous opinion, justices said a lower court erred when it denied Catherine Wyman's request to obtain the out-of-state mental health records of her estranged daughter, Julie Bader-Dunn, the key witness against her.
The court remanded the case to Washoe District Court Judge Jerome Polaha for further proceedings, which could ultimately involve a new trial.
Wyman, now 70, was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder in August 2007 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Dunn, of Chico, Calif., was 15 when her 3-year-old brother, James "J.W." Bader, died. She told investigators that Wyman routinely abused the developmentally disabled boy, and said she came forward in 2005 after the death of her father and multiple bouts with cancer.
But justices said Dunn acknowledged a history of suicide attempts and mental health problems, and noted that her allegations were first raised during sessions with her therapist.
Because of that, access to Dunn's mental health records from California could have affected the verdict, justices said.
"The evidence against Wyman was not overwhelming, with the state's case depending in large part on Dunn's testimony," the opinion said. "Although the state presented testimony from other witnesses regarding suspicions of child abuse as being the cause of death, Dunn was the only witness who directly implicated Wyman as being culpable in J.W.'s death."
The justices said Dunn put her mental health at issue "by the very fact that she made the accusations while receiving mental health treatment."
J.W.'s death was ruled accidental in 1974 by a coroner with no medical training, despite an autopsy that said the boy's intestines had ruptured and caused a fatal infection.
Wyman, formerly known as Catherine Bader, claimed her son was injured when he fell off a lawn chair.
The case was reopened after Dunn contacted police 31 years later. She told investigators she had seen her mother repeatedly kick J.W. in the stomach, ram his head into fence posts and slam toilet seats on his genitals.
She said she had been too frightened to come forward as a teen and feared her father, a Reno firefighter, would kill her mother.
A forensic pathologist reviewed J.W.'s autopsy and concluded he was severely abused and ruled his death a homicide.