SCOTUS Rules Independent Mental Health Expert for Capital Defense

 Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) published its decision in McWilliams v. Dunn, a capital case coming out of Alabama where Death Row Inmate James McWilliams argued  and won that his sentencing was unconstitutional.  He did not challenge his conviction.

Independent Mental Health Expert for Death Penalty Defendants in Capital Cases

He asserted that he had a right to an independent mental health expert in his defense against the death penalty.  By not having his own psychiatrist or psychologist to investigate his history of neurological issues (including a traumatic brain injury), the defendant could not fully assert mitigating factors going against a death sentence.  

In the majority opinion (written by Justice Breyer, SCOTUS explains:

1.  If the defendant is indigent, then 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," citing Ake v. Oklahoma.

2.  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.”

3. The court is not deciding whether Ake requires a State to provide an indigent defendant with a qualified mental health expert retained specifically for the defense team.

Read the opinion here. 

For more on mitigation in a death penalty case's sentencing phase, read our earlier posts including discussions on the issues of indigent defense funding; QEEG brain mapping; and the importance of mitigation specialists.

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