McWilliams v. Dunn

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Procedure
  • Date Filed: June 19, 2017
  • Case #: No. 16–5294
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 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.
  • Full Text Opinion

Under Ake v. Oklahoma, a state is required to provide more than an expert mental health evaluation to assist with an indigent defendant’s insanity defense during the death penalty phase; it must also provide the defendant with access to an independent mental health expert to aid with the preparation and the presentation of the defendant's death penalty phase defense.

Petitioner, an indigent defendant, was sentenced to death after a jury convicted him of murder. During the death penalty phase, the Alabama trial court denied Petitioner’s motion to continue sentencing to allow his defense to have the opportunity to review a mental health evaluation and mental health records, which were produced only two days before the sentencing hearing. The mental health evaluation offered potentially mitigating circumstances pursuant to Petitioner’s insanity defense. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on the grounds that Petitioner did not request an expert to make an evaluation of the report. Nor did he seek post-conviction relief in state court. Petitioner was denied a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed whether Petitioner was given the assistance of a qualified mental expert during the death penalty phase, as required by Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U. S. 68 (1985). The Court noted that Ake required Alabama to provide a qualified mental expert to examine Petitioner, as well as to help with the evaluation, the preparation, and the presentation of Petitioner’s defense. The Court determined that Alabama met the examination requirement, but it declined to determine if the two days, in which Petitioner was able to review the examination, were enough to satisfy the remainder of the Ake requirements. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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