Supreme Court to Review Two Death Penalty CasesJanuary 23, 2017

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases that raise constitutional questions about the assistance poor defendants must be provided at trial and on appeal in a capital case.

The first case involves an Alabama defendant whose defense at the sentencing phase of trial focused on his severe mental health disorders that resulted from multiple head injuries. In elementary school, James McWilliams was attacked by a group of boys who beat him over the head with a glass bottle, causing him to lose consciousness and leading to vision problems, loss of motor functioning in his left hand and arm, severe headaches, and behavior changes. A few years later, McWilliams suffered another head injury, lost consciousness again, and suffered a broken jaw. After that, he suffered a third head injury when his head struck the windshield during a car accident, causing dramatic behavior swings and memory loss for which he did not get medical treatment.

McWilliams's defense requested a mental health expert to help them prepare and present this evidence at his sentencing hearing. The trial judge instead appointed an expert who reported his findings to the court, the prosecution, and the defense just two days before the sentencing hearing. Defense counsel had no opportunity to consult with the expert or have him review medical and psychological records that were not available to the defense until the start of the sentencing hearing.

The Supreme Court will address whether McWilliams had a constitutional right to a defense expert who was independent of the prosecution.

The second case involves the failure to provide adequate counsel to Erick Davila after he was sentenced to death in Texas. Davila was convicted of capital murder after the trial judge gave the jury an incorrect instruction. If this error had been raised on appeal, Davila would have gotten a new trial, but his appellate lawyer did not raise it, and his postconviction lawyer did not raise the appellate lawyer's mistake. When his new lawyer finally raised the issue in federal court, it was denied because it was not raised in state court.

Because the right to effective assistance of counsel is "a bedrock principle in our justice system," the Supreme Court has held that claims about ineffective counsel can be addressed in federal court if the postconviction lawyer fails to raise them in state court. That rule has been applied to claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The question in Davila's case is whether it also applies to ineffectiveness of appellate counsel.

The failure to provide adequate assistance to capital defendants and people who are sentenced to death is a defining feature of the American death penalty, especially in Alabama.

Alabama is also the only state in the country that permits judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty. Last year, the Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it did not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Alabama has the same death penalty statute as that struck down in Hurst, but today the Court refused to review two cases that challenged Alabama's statute.