On June 19th, the Supreme Court granted relief to Alabama death row inmate James McWilliams, who was denied expert assistance to demonstrate the effect of McWilliams’ severe mental illness on his culpability.
Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ake v. Oklahoma, indigent defendants are entitled to “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”
Prior to his sentencing hearing, McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist, but this expert’s report, which suggested that McWilliams had “organic personality syndrome,” was only filed two days before the hearing. Additionally, one day before the hearing, McWilliams’ lawyer received hundreds of pages of prison records showing that McWilliams was being treated with several psychotropic medications. When McWilliams’ attorney asked the court for more time to review these materials and consult with mental health expert, the judge allowed just three hours, and no access to an expert. McWilliams was then sentenced to death.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that this violated McWilliams’ right, under Ake, to have a mental health expert assist the defense in “evaluating, preparing, and presenting its case.” While the Court directed the 11th Circuit to determine whether this violation had a substantial impact on McWilliams’ sentence, it unfortunately declined to issue a broader ruling clarifying Ake’s requirements regarding expert assistance. As TCP noted in its brief urging the Court to hear the case, to ensure that indigent defendants are not “denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding,” they must have access to an expert who is independent of the prosecution.