U.S. Supreme Court rules for Alabama death row inmate on mental health defense

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The U.S. Supreme Court sent a condemned Alabama inmate’s case back to a lower court late last month because he did not have access to a mental health expert in preparing a defense based on his mental condition.

The Court, in a 5-4 decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said that James McWilliams’ death sentence for raping and killing a store clerk in 1985 should be re-heard, citing Ake v. Oklahoma (1985), which “requires more than just an examination. It requires that the state provide the defense with ‘access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.’”

McWilliams’ lawyers had asked for an independent mental health expert before his sentencing, but the neuropsychologist, Dr. John Goff, who conducted the exam, was provided by the state. He believed McWillliams exaggerated his condition, but did concede that he displayed signs of neuropsychological problems.

McWilliams’ lawyers did not receive the evaluation until two days before the sentencing hearing, and didn’t receive the mental health records until the day of the hearing, but their request to the court for more time to review the reports was denied by the judge, who then sentenced McWilliams to death.

Stephen B. Bright, former President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) represented McWilliams in the Supreme Court, along with SCHR attorneys Patrick Mulvaney and Mark Loudon-Brown. Former United States Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, now a partner at Munger, Tolles, and Olson, along with his Munger colleagues Michael DeSanctis and Joshua Meltzer, joined the case as co-counsel.

After the ruling, Bright 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. There is great reliance on experts in many areas of the law. A mental health expert who can assist in the evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense is indispensable in a case where the defendant’s mental health is a significant issue, as it was in this case. As the Court recognized, Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell dramatically short of what the Constitution requires.

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. He was denied such assistance.”

This was Bright’s fourth victory in the Supreme Court.

The justices ordered an appeals court to decide whether failing to provide expert assistance was enough of an error that they should invalidate McWilliams’ death sentence.







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