SCOTUS Backs Death Row Mental Health Appeal

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By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

A condemned killer in Alabama may need to be resentenced and two others awaiting execution in Arkansas may also get another chance at a new sentence after a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court June 19 ( McWilliams v. Dunn , 2017 BL 208298, U.S., No. 16-5294, 6/19/17 ).

James McWilliams Jr. was not provided an adequate mental health evaluation prior to his 1986 sentencing for killing a convenience store clerk, the court held in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

The case centered around a decades-old high court decision, Ake v. Oklahoma, that held the state must ensure poor defendants have “access to a competent psychiatrist who will assist in evaluation, preparation and presentation of the defense.”

Ake “clearly establishes” that an indigent defendant whose sanity at the time of the offense is a relevant factor “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,’” the court said.

This case is really about “basic fundamental fairness,” Stephen B. Bright, a professor at Yale Law School, Georgetown Law, and Georgia State University College of Law, told Bloomberg BNA June 19.

Bright was the president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights until earlier this year.

He was appointed by the Supreme Court to be McWilliams’s counsel in March 2017.

‘Everybody Gets a Hatchet’

The government so often depends on expert witnesses for things like ballistics and DNA that “if it’s gonna be a fair fight, at least let the defense consult with an expert,” Bright said.

“If you come to a hatchet fight, everybody gets a hatchet,” Bright said.

The majority concluded the court-appointed mental evaluation McWilliams received did not meet the test set out in Ake.

This is the court’s first 5-4 ruling since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last year.

The court’s holding reaffirms that indigent defendants must have access to the tools that are necessary to have a reliable outcome, George A. Couture, a criminal defense attorney in Decatur, Ga., told Bloomberg BNA.

The decision is “very important for the criminal defense bar in this country,” Couture said.

Sane or Insane?

During McWilliams’s murder trial, a state-convened three-person “lunacy commission” determined that he wasn’t suffering from mental illness and was competent to stand trial.

After he was convicted but before sentencing, McWilliams’s court-appointed counsel requested neurological exams, which a state neuropsychologist, Dr. John Goff, performed.

He determined that McWilliams was exaggerating his symptoms, but possibly suffered from “organic personality syndrome” that could be related to multiple serious head injuries he had sustained as a child.

When the defense counsel asked the court for more time to get help interpreting the report, the court refused and sentenced McWilliams to death.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that Goff’s report had satisfied the Ake requirement, and the Eleventh Circuit ultimately denied McWilliams’s petition for habeas corpus.

The services Alabama provided McWilliams “fell so dramatically short of what Ake requires,” that the Alabama court’s affirmation of the death sentence was contrary to clearly established federal law, the Supreme Court said.

Meaningful Access

Alabama denied McWilliams meaningful access to justice, it said.

Goff met the examination part of the requirement, but neither he nor any other mental health expert was made available to help translate his findings and help with defense strategy, the court said.

The “majority of jurisdictions” provide a qualified expert “specifically for the defense team,” the court noted.

A lot of states now have public defender offices that have budgets for experts so defendants don’t even have to go through all this, Bright said.

Alabama, however, doesn’t have a public defender system but uses court-appointed lawyers, he said.

If defendants want an expert, for example, they have to go to the court and apply. They often get a very meager amount or—as in this case—nothing, Bright said.

The holding is so significant in part because more than 50 percent of defendants in the criminal justice system have a “significant mental health history,” Couture said.

There’s a historical problem in Alabama with the provision of adequate counsel and experts services, he said.

At least now McWilliams has a “fair shot” of winning this case, Couture said.

Remand Command

When the case returns to the Eleventh Circuit, that court should consider whether the Alabama courts’ error was substantial enough “to warrant a grant of habeas relief,” the Supreme Court said.

The ruling likely sets up a resentencing hearing for McWilliams, and also will likely influence the cases of Don William Davis and Bruce Earl Ward. Their executions in Arkansas were stayed pending the outcome of this case.

They, too, argue they weren’t provided with an independent expert to evaluate their mental health claims.

“It helps” Davis and Ward that McWilliams “came down the way it did,” Bright said.

Bright was optimistic about McWilliams’s chances at the Eleventh Circuit.

It was a “close call” the last time, and now that “the issue’s squared up, I feel we’re in a pretty strong position,” he said.

‘Unseemly Maneuver’

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, dissented.

The majority used “a most unseemly maneuver” and didn’t actually review the question presented, Alito said.

The court agreed to review concerns about the type of expert that must be provided—neutral or pro-defense, he said.

Ake “provides no clear guidance one way or the other” on this issue, Alito said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall agreed with the dissent.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to resolve this case on a question that was not under review and was never briefed by the parties is an affront to the rule of law and, especially, deprives crime victims the opportunity to be heard,” Marshall said in an email to Bloomberg BNA.

“As Justice Alito argued in his dissent, ‘ Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.’ It is unfortunate that a majority of the justices ignored this fact in rendering their opinion,” Marshall said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at

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