McWilliams v. Dunn,
582 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Stephen G. Breyer)  | 
  • Dissent (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

McWILLIAMS v. DUNN, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 16–5294. Argued April 24, 2017—Decided June 19, 2017

Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U. S. 68 , clearly established that when an indigent “defendant demonstrates . . . that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant fact at trial, the State must” provide the defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

One month after Ake was decided, Alabama charged petitioner McWilliams with rape and murder. Finding him indigent, the trial court appointed counsel, who requested a psychiatric evaluation of McWilliams. The court granted the motion and the State convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent to stand trial and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the alleged offense. A jury convicted McWilliams of capital murder and recommended a death sentence. Later, while the parties awaited McWilliams’ judicial sentencing hearing, McWilliams’ counsel asked for neurological and neuropsychological testing of McWilliams. The court agreed and McWilliams was examined by Dr. Goff. Dr. Goff filed a report two days before the judicial sentencing hearing. He concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but nonetheless appeared to have some genuine neuropsychological problems. Just before the hearing, counsel also received updated records from the commission’s evaluation and previously subpoenaed mental health records from the Alabama Department of Corrections. At the hearing, defense counsel requested a continuance in order to evaluate all the new material, and asked for the assistance of someone with expertise in psychological matters to review the findings. The trial court denied defense counsel’s requests. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court sentenced McWilliams to death.

On appeal, McWilliams argued that the trial court denied him the right to meaningful expert assistance guarantee by Ake. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed McWilliams’ conviction and sentence, holding that Dr. Goff’s examination satisfied Ake’s requirements. The State Supreme Court affirmed, and McWilliams failed to obtain state postconviction relief. On federal habeas review, a Magistrate Judge also found that the Goff examination satisfied Ake and, therefore, that the State Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. See 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). Adopting the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation, the District Court denied relief. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Held:

1. Ake clearly established that when certain threshold criteria are met, the state must provide a defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” 470 U. S., at 83. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Pp. 11–16.

(a) Three preliminary issues require resolution. First, the conditions that trigger Ake’s application are present. McWilliams is and was an “indigent defendant,” 470 U. S., at 70, and his “mental condition” was both “relevant to . . . the punishment he might suffer,” id., at 80, and “seriously in question,” id., at 70. Second, this Court rejects Alabama’s claim the State was relieved of its Ake obligations because McWilliams received brief assistance from a volunteer psychologist at the University of Alabama. Even if the episodic help of an outside volunteer could satisfy Ake, the State does not refer to any specific record facts that indicate that the volunteer psychologist was available to the defense at the judicial sentencing proceeding. Third, contrary to Alabama’s suggestion, the record indicates that McWilliams did not get all the mental health assistance that he requested. Rather, he asked for additional help at the judicial sentencing hearing, but was rebuffed. Pp. 11–13.

(b) This Court does not have to decide whether Ake requires a State to provide an indigent defendant with a qualified mental health expert retained specifically for the defense team. That is because Alabama did not meet even Ake’s most basic requirements in this case. Ake 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 [1] examination and assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the defense.” 470 U. S., at 83. Even assuming that Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. No expert helped the defense evaluate the Goff report or McWilliams’ extensive medical records and translate these data into a legal strategy. No expert helped the defense prepare and present arguments that might, e.g., have explained that McWilliams’ purported malingering was not necessarily inconsistent with mental illness. No expert helped the defense prepare direct or cross-examination of any witnesses, or testified at the judicial sentencing hearing. Since Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell so dramatically short of Ake’s requirements, the Alabama courts’ decision affirming McWilliams’ sentence was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). Pp. 13–16.

2. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the Alabama courts’ error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief, Davis v. Ayala, 576 U. S. ___, ___, specifically considering whether access to the type of meaningful assistance in evaluating, preparing, and presenting the defense that Ake requires could have made a difference. P. 16.

634 Fed. Appx. 698, reversed and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas and Gorsuch, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

An indigent defendant facing the death penalty must receive access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist the evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense, or habeas relief may be appropriate.

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