U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Alabama Death-Row Prisoner in McWilliams v. Dunn

In a 5-4 decision released June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama had unconstitutionally denied death-row prisoner James McWilliams (pictured) the assistance of an independent mental health expert. The Court wrote that its 1985 ruling in Ake v. Oklahoma, which entitles indigent defendants to the assistance of a mental health expert, encompassed a clearly established right to an expert who is "independent from the prosecution." In his opinion for the Court, Justice Breyer wrote that "Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell ... dramatically short of Ake’s requirements." The defense had no expert to help it prepare to examine the doctors who testified for the state, and only presented testimony about his mental condition from McWilliams and his mother. After the jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, the court scheduled a formal sentencing hearing and appointed a state neuropsychologist to examine McWilliams. That doctor prepared a report of the evaluation and consulted with the prosecution. Defense counsel received the neuropsychological report—which stated that McWilliams had “organic brain damage,” “genuine neuropsychological problems,” and “an obvious neuropsychological deficit”—only two days before his sentencing hearing. On the day of the hearing, counsel received extensive prison mental health records that contained evidence that McWilliams was being prescribed anti-psychotic medication. After denying the defense time to consult with an independent expert to develop the mental health evidence for use in mitigation, the court found no mitigating evidence and sentenced McWilliams to death. Justice Breyer wrote, "Ake clearly established that when certain threshold criteria are met, the state must provide a defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively 'conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.'" The Court remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which must now determine whether Alabama's violation of McWilliams' right to an independent expert had the "'substantial and injurious effect or influence' required to warrant a grant of habeas relief." Stephen Bright, who argued on behalf of McWilliams before the Supreme Court, said, "Today’s decision is about fairness. The adversarial process cannot function properly if the prosecution can retain mental health experts, but the defense is not even allowed to consult with an expert." He said, "James McWilliams could not have a fair trial without a mental health expert to assess his brain damage and other mental impairments and to help his counsel present that information to the sentencing court." 

(I. Hrynkiw, "U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Alabama death row inmate," AL.com, June 19, 2017; Press Release, "Statement from Stephen Bright, Counsel of Record for James McWilliams, in re: Today's SCOTUS Ruling (McWilliams v. Dunn)," June 19, 2017.) Read the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McWilliams v. Dunn. See U.S. Supreme Court. See DPIC's background page on McWilliams v. Dunn.