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McWilliams v. Dunn

United States Supreme Court

June 19, 2017

JAMES E. McWILLIAMS, PETITIONER
v.
JEFFERSON S. DUNN, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, ET AL.

          Argued April 24, 2017

          SYLLABUS

          CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT .

         Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 83, 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. Goffs 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 Mc Williams' 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 Mc Williams' 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

          OPINION

          BREYER, JUSTICE

         Thirty-one years ago, petitioner James Edmond McWilliams, Jr., was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury and sentenced to death. McWilliams challenged his sentence on appeal, arguing that the State had failed to provide him with the expert mental health assistance the Constitution requires, but the Alabama courts refused to grant relief. We now consider, in this habeas corpus case, whether the Alabama courts' refusal was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1). We hold that it was. Our decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively "assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense." Id., at 83. Petitioner in this case did not receive that assistance.

          I

         McWilliams and the State of Alabama agree that Ake (which this Court decided in February 1985) sets forth the applicable constitutional standards. Before turning to the circumstances of McWilliams' case, we describe what the Court held in Ake. We put in italics language that we find particularly pertinent here.

         The Court began by stating that the "issue in this case is whether the Constitution requires that an indigent defendant have access to the psychiatric examination and assistance necessary to prepare an effective defense based on his mental condition, when his sanity at the time of the offense is seriously in question." Id., at 70 (emphasis added). The Court said it would consider that issue within the framework of earlier cases granting "an indigent defendant ... a fair opportunity to present his defense" and "to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding in which his liberty is at stake." Id., at 76. "Meaningful access to justice, " the Court added, "has been the consistent theme of these cases." Id., at 77.

         The Court then wrote that "when the State has made the defendant's mental condition relevant to his criminal culpability and to the punishment he might suffer, the assistance of a psychiatrist may well be crucial to the defendant's ability to marshal his defense." Id., at 80. A psychiatrist may, among other things, "gather facts, " "analyze the information gathered and from it draw plausible conclusions, " and "know the probative questions to ask of the opposing party's psychiatrists and how to interpret their answers." Ibid. These and related considerations

"lea[d] inexorably to the conclusion that, without the assistance of a psychiatrist to conduct a professional examination on issues relevant to the defense, to help determine whether the insanity defense is viable, to present testimony, and to assist in preparing the cross-examination of a State's psychiatric witnesses, the risk of an inaccurate resolution of sanity issues is extremely high. With such assistance, the defendant is fairly able to present at least enough information to the jury, in a meaningful manner, as to permit it to make a sensible determination." Id., at 82 (emphasis added).

         The Court concluded: "We therefore hold that when a defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense. . . . Our concern is that the indigent defendant have access to a competent psychiatrist for the[se] purpose[s]'." Id., at 83 (emphasis added).

         Ake thus clearly establishes that when its threshold criteria are met, a State must provide a mental health professional capable of performing a certain role: "conducting] an appropriate examination and assisting] in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense." Ibid. Unless a defendant is "assure [d]" the assistance of someone who can effectively perform these functions, he has not received the "minimum" to which Ake entitles him. Ibid.

         II

         A

         One month after this Court decided Ake, the State of Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder. The trial court found McWilliams indigent and provided him with counsel. It also granted counsel's pretrial motion for a psychiatric evaluation of McWilliams' sanity, including aspects of his mental condition relevant to "mitigating circumstances to be considered in a capital case in the sentencing stage." T. 1526. ("T." refers to the certified trial record; "P. C. T." refers to the certified court reporter's state postconviction proceedings transcript.) The court ordered the State to convene a "Lunacy Commission, " which would examine McWilliams and file a report with the court. See id., at 1528-1529.

         Subsequently a three-member Lunacy Commission examined McWilliams at a state hospital, the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility. The three members, all psychiatrists, concluded that McWilliams was competent to stand trial and that he had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the alleged offense. Id., at 1544-1546. One of them, Dr. Kamal Nagi, wrote that "Mr. McWilliams is grossly exaggerating his psychological symptoms to mimic mental illness." Id., at 1546. Dr. Nagi noted that McWilliams' performance on one of the tests "suggested that [McWilliams] had exaggerated his endorsement of symptoms of illness and the profile was considered a 'fake bad.'" Ibid.

         McWilliams' trial took place in late August 1986. On August 26 the jury convicted him of capital murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty, which under then-applicable Alabama law required both a jury recommendation (with at least 10 affirmative votes) and a later determination by the judge. See Ala. Code §13A-5-46(f) (1986). The jury-related portion of the sentencing proceeding took place the next day. The prosecution reintroduced evidence from the guilt phase and called a police officer to testify that McWilliams had a prior conviction. T. 1297, 1299-1303. The defense called McWilliams and his mother. Both testified that McWilliams, when a child, had suffered multiple serious head injuries. Id., at 1303-1318, 1320-1335. McWilliams also described his history of psychiatric and psychological evaluations, reading from the prearrest report of one psychologist, who concluded that McWilliams had a "blatantly psychotic thought disor- der" and needed inpatient treatment. Id., at 1329-1332.

         When the prosecutor, cross-examining McWilliams, asked about the neurological effects of his head injuries, McWilliams replied, "I am not a psychiatrist." Id., at 1328. Similarly, when the prosecutor asked McWilliams' mother whether her son was "crazy, " she answered, "I am no expert: I don't know whether my son is crazy or not. All I know, that my son do need help." Id., at 1317.

         The prosecution then called two of the mental health professionals who had signed the Lunacy Commission's report, Dr. Kamal Nagi and Dr. Norman Poythress. Dr. Nagi testified that he had found no evidence of psychosis, but did not appear to be aware of McWilliams' history of head trauma. See id., at 1351-1352. Dr. Poythress testified that one of the tests that McWilliams took was "clinically invalid" because the test's "validity scales" indicated that McWilliams had exaggerated or faked his symptoms. Id., at 1361-1363.

         Although McWilliams' counsel had subpoenaed further mental health records from Holman State Prison, where McWilliams was being held, the jury did not have the opportunity to consider them, for, though subpoenaed on August 13, the records had not arrived by August 27, the day of the jury hearing.

         After the hearing, the jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of 10 to 2, the minimum required by Alabama law. The court scheduled its judicial sentencing hearing for October 9, about six weeks later.

         B

         Five weeks before that hearing, the trial court ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to respond to Mc Williams's subpoena for mental health records. Id., at 1619. The court also granted McWilliams' motion for neurological and neuropsychological exams. Id., at 1615-1617. That motion (apparently filed at the suggestion of a University of Alabama psychologist who had "volunteer [ed]" to help counsel "in her spare time, " P. C. T. 251-252) asked the court to "issue an order requiring the State of Alabama to do complete neurological and neuropsychological testing on the Defendant in order to have the test results available for his sentencing hearing." T. 1615.

         Consequently, Dr. John Goff, a neuropsychologist employed by the State's Department of Mental Health, examined McWilliams. On October 7, two days before the judicial sentencing hearing, Dr. Goff filed his report. The report concluded that McWilliams presented "some diagnostic dilemmas." Id., at 1635. On the one hand, he was "obviously attempting to appear emotionally disturbed" and "exaggerating his neuropsychological problems." Ibid. But on the other hand, it was "quite apparent that he ha[d] some genuine neuropsychological problems." Ibid. Tests revealed "cortical dysfunction attributable to right cerebral hemisphere dysfunction, " shown by "left hand weakness, poor motor coordination of the left hand, sensory deficits including suppressions of the left hand and very poor visual search skills." Id., at 1636. These deficiencies were "suggestive of a right hemisphere lesion" and "compatible with the injuries [McWilliams] sa[id] he sustained as a child." Id., at 1635. The report added that McWilliams' "obvious neuropsychological deficit" could be related to his "low frustration tolerance and impulsivity, " and suggested a diagnosis of "organic personality syndrome." Ibid.

         The day before the sentencing hearing defense counsel also received updated records from Taylor Hardin hospital, and on the morning of the hearing he received the records (subpoenaed in mid-August) from Holman Prison. The prison records indicated that McWilliams was taking an assortment of psychotropic ...


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