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Better psych evals needed in death penalty cases, Supreme Court says

The state of Alabama fell short of its obligation to provide expert psychological evaluation assistance to an indigent death penalty defendant, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

But the Court did not explicitly say that states are required to provide independent evaluation experts for indigent defendants, as many advocates had hoped they would. In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan, wrote that “Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell… dramatically short” but left it up to lower courts to decide whether to require an independent defense expert or to have both sides use the same expert.


“We couldn’t have expected anything better,” said Stephen Bright, attorney for Alabama death row inmate James McWilliams.

In oral arguments in April for McWilliams v. Dunn, Bright argued that an independent expert is crucial for ensuring a fair trial. “This certainly doesn’t put the defense in an equal position with the prosecutor, not by a long shot, but it at least gives the defense a shot, at least gives them one competent mental health expert that they can talk to, understand what the issues are, present them as best they can.”

McWilliams was convicted of rape and murder in 1986, one year after the Supreme Court decided that indigent defendants are entitled to mental health experts to perform an exam and “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

The mental capacity of McWilliams at the time of the crime became an important element of his defense in the sentencing phase of the case. Throughout his life he had suffered severe head injuries, and he had been prescribed psychotropic medications while behind bars.

The Alabama court ordered a neurological evaluation of McWilliams. The report from that exam and prison records about McWilliams’ medications were given to the defense just two days before the sentencing hearing. McWilliams’ defense counsel pleaded with the judge for time to review the findings with an expert and develop arguments about his client’s mental health.


“We really need an opportunity to have the right type of experts in this field take a look at all of those records and tell us what is happening with him,” the defense counsel said at the 1986 sentencing hearing. “The arbitrary position taken by this court regarding the defendant’s right to present mitigating circumstances is unconscionable resulting in this proceeding being a mockery.”

The judge denied his requests and sentenced McWilliams, now 60, to death. State and federal courts, including the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, affirmed the trial judge’s decision.

Kagan appeared to agree with the defense at oral arguments in April. “You have to give the indigent defendants, just as you give the wealthier defendant, the tools that they need to establish what they want to establish about mental health,” she said.

The case is now headed back to the 11th Circuit, which will decide if a fair mental health evaluation for McWilliams would have made a difference at his trial.

In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch, expressed frustration about what he characterized as his colleagues’ narrow, case-specific ruling, arguing that they should have decided the larger question: Are indigent defendants entitled to independent experts?

“We do not tolerate this sort of bait-and-switch tactic from litigants, and we should not engage in it ourselves,” Alito wrote. “The court should not have addressed this question at all.”

Two of the eight Arkansas death row inmates scheduled to be executed during Arkansas’ death penalty spree in April — Bruce Ward and Don Davis — received stays of execution pending the outcome of the McWilliams case.

“Like Mr. McWilliams, Mr. Ward and Mr. Davis were denied access to independent mental health experts even though they clearly demonstrated that mental health issues would be significant factors at their trials,” Scott Braden, assistant federal defender in Arkansas, said in April.

Bright said he is confident the Supreme Court’s decision will have a significant impact on similar cases going forward.

“Trial judges are going to realize that if you don’t provide an independent expert, then there’s a good chance the case will be reversed on appeal,” he said. “I don’t know how you can read the opinion and come out thinking of much else.”