December 01, 2017

Supreme Court Reaffirms Duty to Provide Psychiatric Assistance to Capital Defendants

On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in McWilliams v. Dunn, clarifying the Court’s jurisprudence on access to psychiatric assistance for indigent defendants under Ake v. Oklahoma (1985). Justice Breyer, writing for the majority in a 5-4 opinion, held that “Ake does not require just an examination [by a psychiatrist]. Rather, it requires the State to provide the defense with ‘access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate [1] examination and assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the defense.’”

In McWilliams, both sides agreed that the defendant met the three triggering conditions to apply Ake: he was indigent, his mental condition was relevant to the punishment he might suffer, and his mental health was in question. Mr. McWilliams’ counsel argued they were denied adequate access to psychiatric assistance throughout the trial, even though the state was required to provide such services under Ake. The State in turn argued that Alabama had satisfied its requirements because Mr. McWilliams had received volunteer assistance from a university psychologist and was evaluated by a state-employed neuropsychologist who provided his report two days before sentencing. Lower courts agreed with this argument, finding no violation of Ake.

In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found the lower courts’ application of Ake unreasonable, rejecting the State’s arguments. The State claimed that Ake should not apply because Mr. McWilliams never sought additional expert assistance but rather sought a continuance. The Court disagreed, noting that defense counsel’s repeated request for a continuance indicated that counsel wanted time for an expert to review the neuropsychologist’s report and other materials.

The Court also found that while Alabama technically met the examination requirement of Ake, the state failed to provide the three other aspects of expert assistance contemplated by its jurisprudence. Defense counsel was not able to provide any expert with Mr. McWilliams’ extensive medical and prison records. Had an expert reviewed the records, he or she could have assisted defense counsel in rebutting the claims by State mental health experts that Mr. McWilliams was malingering, explained the medical records and neuropsychologist’s report to defense counsel, and assisted in the presentation of a compelling mitigation case to spare Mr. McWilliams from a death sentence. Justice Breyer concluded that “[t]here is reason to think” that had the Ake requirements all been met, the outcome would have been different.

Because the case could be decided on those grounds, the Court did not answer the question it originally granted for review about whether Ake requires the defense expert to be fully independent from the State and a member of the defense team.