Supreme Court Rules Poor Defendants Are Entitled to Mental Health Experts to Assist in Presenting Defense

From [HEREOn June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court (5-4) ruled in favor of Alabama death-row prisoner James Edmond McWilliams finding that he was denied his constitutional right to the assistance of a mental-health expert in evaluating, preparing, and presenting his defense, and sent the case back to the Eleventh Circuit to decide whether that error had substantial and injurious effect on his sentencing proceedings. The lower courts will determine if McWilliams' death sentence will stand in light of the decision.

McWilaims is a Black man who has been held on Alabama's death row for three decades. He argued he was entitled to an expert independent from prosecutors to gauge his mental health and possibly help him avoid execution.

Writing for the opinion for the Court, Justice Breyer explained that the Alabama courts denial of relief was contrary to a 1985 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Ake v. Oklahoma, which "clearly established that a defendant must receive the assistance of a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively 'assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.'"

In reaching the decision in this case, the Court explained that "Ake does not require just an examination. Rather, it requires the State to provide the defense with 'access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate [1] examination and assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the defense.'" Because McWilliams was denied the expert assistance to which he was entitled, the Court granted relief.

The conditions that trigger application of Ake are 1) defendant is an indigent defendant 2) his “mental condition” is “relevant to . . . the punishment he might suffer and 3) that “mental condition,” i.e., his “sanity at the time of the offense,” is/was “seriously in question.  If so, the Constitution, as interpreted in Ake, requires the State to provide the defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.

Justice Alito (joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) dissented, asserting that the majority failed to address the question presented--that is whether an indigicant criminal defendant is "entitled to the assistance of a psychiatric expert who is a member of the defense team."  (The question presented, as stated in the merits brief filed by McWilliams was whether, when this court held in Ake v. Oklahoma that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense,” it clearly established that the expert should be independent of the prosecution.)

Petitioner McWilliams—who has a history of severe and multiple head injuries—was convicted of the robbery, rape, and murder of a store clerk. Before the sentencing hearing took place, McWilliams' counsel asked the court for expert mental-health assistance to conduct neuropsychological and neurological examinations. The court granted counsel's request, but appointed an expert who was a colleague to the two experts presented by the State, and defense counsel was afforded no opportunity to consult with the expert. The expert prepared a report, which was distributed to defense counsel only two days before sentencing, with copies simultaneously provided to the prosecution and the judge. Because McWilliams's counsel did not have an adequate opportunity to review the expert's report and diagnoses or mental-health records (which he received only on the morning of sentencing), counsel asked for a continuance of the sentencing hearing, which was denied. During the lunch break on the day of sentencing, counsel then filed a motion to withdraw, stating: "Counsel feels the arbitrary position taken by this Court regarding Defendant's right to present mitigation circumstances is unconscionable resulting in this proceeding being a mockery." The court denied counsel's motion. The full penalty-phase trial lasted less than one day, after which the jury voted 10-2 to recommend a death sentence, and the trial judge sentenced McWilliams to death. (In Alabama, the jury recommends a sentence and the ultimate decision is left to the judge. At the time, it was was one of only three states to permit the judge to impose death if the jury recommendation of sentence was not unanimous. It is the only state that still permits such a sentence.)

In 1985, the Supreme Court decided a case establishing that if mental health is a significant factor at trial, then an indigent defendant has a constitutional right to an expert to "assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense."  Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 83 (1985). McWilliams argued to the state and federal courts that he was denied his right to independent expert assistance in preparing for his capital sentencing hearing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for Eleventh Circuit denied him relief on this claim, finding that Alabama "provided McWilliams access to a competent psychiatrist, and McWilliams relied on the psychiatrist’s assistance." 

You can read the Supreme Court decision reversing the Eleventh Circuit here. You can read the Eleventh Circuit decision denying relief here.  You can find briefs filed and additional background on the case here.