Supreme Court Clarifies Expert Psychiatric Assistance In Indigent Defendant Cases

The Court had previously held in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), that when an indigent defendant’s mental condition is relevant to his criminal culpability, the State must provide that defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense, and independent from the prosecution, to conduct a psychiatric examination and “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” One month after that decision, James McWilliams was charged with rape and murder. He was deemed competent to stand trial, and convicted of capital murder. During the sentencing phase, the trial court ordered that McWilliams be given a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. John Goff, who found that while McWilliams was “attempting to appear emotionally disturbed,” had some neuropsychological problems. Dr. Goff provided his evaluation two days before the sentencing hearing, and defense counsel asked for more time to evaluate it. That request was denied, and the defense offered no evidence of mitigation. McWilliams was sentenced to death, and the appeals courts all found that he had received the assistance required under Ake. The Court, in a 5-4 decision by Justice Breyer, reversed, holding that while McWilliams received the examination, he was not provided the proper evaluation, preparation, or presentation services required under Ake when the trial court refused to allow the defense more time to analyze Dr. Goff’s report and engage him to assist in the defense. Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented, arguing that the only question before the Court was whether Ake clearly established that the psychiatric expert was to be a member of the defense team instead of a neutral expert, and that the Court had actually declined review of the issue the majority decided, accusing the majority of making an “unseemly maneuver.” A link to the opinion in McWilliams v. Dunn is here.