The United States Supreme Court Considers Case of SCHR Client

24th April, 2017

On January 13, 2017, more than thirty years after his conviction, the Supreme Court of the United States granted cert to longtime SCHR client, James McWilliams.  

Mr. McWilliams has been on Alabama’s death row since 1986. The Court heard his case on April 24, 2017, and will decide the question of whether when the 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.  

In Ake v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly recognized that once an indigent defendant has established that his mental health is likely to be a significant factor at trial, he is entitled to receive an independent expert to assist his defense. The Court in Ake recognized that “such assistance is essential to providing the defendant ‘a fair opportunity to present his defense,’ and to ensuring that facts are resolved based on the views and expertise of ‘psychiatrists for each party,’ which is consistent with the adversary system.” 

Two days before his sentencing hearing, attorneys for Mr. McWilliams received a complex psychological report from the state’s neuropsychologist, Dr. John R. Goff. Mr. McWilliams sustained head injuries as a child and young adult. The report stated that Mr. McWilliams had “organic brain damage,” “genuine neuropsychological problems,” and “an obvious neuropsychological deficit,” among other issues. On the day of the sentencing, defense attorneys received voluminous mental health and prison records. The records showed that Mr. McWilliams was being treated with psychotropic medication. However, without the assistance of a mental health expert, attorneys for Mr. McWilliams could not review and understand the report and records regarding Mr. McWilliams’s mental impairments in time for the hearing. Mr. McWilliams’s attorneys repeatedly sought a continuance in order to consult with an independent expert and develop a mitigation case based on the evidence of Mr. McWilliams’s mental impairments. The trial court judge denied the motions and sentenced Mr. Williams to death.

Mr. McWilliams appealed his death sentence to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing he was denied his constitutional right to independent expert assistance under Ake v. Oklahoma.  Affirming the death sentence, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals held that Ake did not entitle Mr. McWilliams to anything more than the views of the psychologist who reported simultaneously to the prosecution, the defense, and the judge. Since its decision in Mr. McWilliams’s case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed itself and decided in 2005 that Ake established a right to a mental health expert independent of the prosecution (Morris v. State).

The absence of an independent expert left Mr. McWilliams “unable to present any mitigating evidence on the only significant factor at his sentencing: his mental health.” 

As the Brief for Petitioner states, “an expert assisting the defense would have explained in lay terms to defense counsel how to present the diagnoses and information in the report and records as mitigating circumstances. Consideration of [Mr.] McWilliams’s brain damage and other mental health issues was essential to a fair and reliable sentencing determination.”

In Ake v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that the right to an independent mental health expert followed from the right to counsel recognized in Gideon v. Wainwright. It is only fair that poor people accused of crimes have access to independent experts just as rich people do. McWilliams v. Dunn is fundamentally about fairness, equity, and an even playing field for all in our criminal justice system. 

Two amicus briefs have been filed in support of Mr. McWilliams’ petition from various criminal defense and psychiatric associations, including: One from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association for Public Defense, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Twenty-Three Capital Attorneys and Investigators and the other from the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, and the American Psychological Association. 

Oral argument in McWilliams v. Dunn was presented to the Court on April 24, 2017 at 10 a.m. EST by Stephen B. Bright, supported by SCHR attorneys Patrick Mulvaney and Mark Loudon-Brown. SCHR is grateful to former United States Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, now a partner at Munger, Tolles, and Olson, for joining this case as co-counsel, along with his Munger colleagues Michael DeSanctis and Joshua Meltzer.

The transcript from the oral argument can be read here. The audio of the McWilliams oral argument will be available online on Friday, April 28. The Court is expected to issue a decision by June 2017.

 

Brief of Petitioner James McWilliams 

Reply Brief of Petitioner James McWilliams

James McWilliams’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari

Alabama’s Brief in Opposition to a Writ of Certiorari

James McWilliams’s Reply to Brief in Opposition to a Writ of Certiorari

Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association for Public Defense, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Twenty-Three Capital Attorneys and Investigators

Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner from the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, and the American Psychological Association