Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Alabama Death Row Inmate Who Was Denied Expert Assistance


The United States Supreme Court today granted relief to James McWilliams, who was sentenced to death after Alabama refused to provide him the expert assistance guaranteed him by the Constitution.

Mr. McWilliams’s defense at the sentencing phase of trial focused on his severe mental health disorders that resulted from multiple head injuries. Defense counsel requested a mental health expert to help them prepare and present this evidence at his sentencing hearing, but the trial judge instead appointed an expert who reported his findings to the court and the prosecution. Mr. McWilliams was convicted and sentenced to death. He challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the state had failed to provide him with expert mental health assistance, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief.

Today, in McWilliams v. Dunn, the Supreme Court found the Alabama courts’ refusal to grant relief ran afoul of Ake v. Oklahoma, which held that the state must provide an indigent defendant who meets certain criteria with “access to 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.'”

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the Court that the conditions that trigger application of Ake were clearly present: Mr. McWilliams was poor, his mental condition was relevant to his punishment, and his sanity at the time of the offense was seriously in question. Accordingly, the Constitution required Alabama to provide access to a competent psychiatrist to do four things: (1) conduct an appropriate examination and assist in (2) evaluation, (3) preparation, and (4) presentation of the defense.

The Court agreed with arguments made by the Southern Center for Human Rights, who represented Mr. McWilliams, finding that “Alabama here did not meet even Ake‘s most basic requirements.” Even assuming that Alabama met the examination requirement by providing a state doctor to examine Mr. McWilliams, the Court reasoned, the other three requirements were not met. No expert helped the defense evaluate the state doctor’s report or Mr. McWilliams’ extensive medical records and translate these data into a legal strategy. No expert helped the defense prepare and present arguments or direct or cross-examination of any witnesses, and no expert testified at the judicial sentencing hearing.

“Since Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell so dramatically short of what Ake requires,” the Court concluded that “the Alabama court decision affirming McWilliams’s conviction and sentence was ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.'”

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. A new law passed by Alabama’s legislature this spring will exacerbate these problems by making it more difficult to obtain adequate counsel and by imposing more unfair filing requirements. By making the state postconviction process even more complicated and arbitrary, the law increases the likelihood that clients on death row will not receive full and fair review of their cases.