The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-4 [text, PDF] on Monday in favor of a man who has been sentenced to death in Alabama, holding that he had not received “the psychiatric examination and assistance necessary to prepare an effective defense based on his mental condition” as required after the 1985 case Ake v. Oklahoma [opinion]. James McWilliams was convicted of raping and killing a convenience store clerk in 1984. At trial, the defense counsel repeatedly moved to continue the court proceedings so they could have an “expert” evaluate McWilliams’ psychiatric report. The judge denied the requests, telling the defense they could have until 2 p.m. on the day of sentencing to look over the report, which the defense had only acquired two days earlier. The judge, taking the position that McWilliams was faking and exaggerating his mental illness, sentenced him to death.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that the precedent set in Ake goes beyond simply examining an indigent defendant, but also requires assistance:
We are willing to assume that Alabama met the examination portion of this requirement by providing for Dr. Goff’s examination of McWilliams. But what about the other three parts? Neither Dr. Goff nor any other expert helped the defense evaluate Goff’s report or McWilliams’ extensive medical records and translate these data into a legal strategy. Neither Dr. Goff nor any other expert helped the defense prepare and present arguments that might, for example, have explained that McWilliams’ purported malingering was not necessarily inconsistent with mental illness. Neither Dr. Goff nor any other expert helped the defense prepare direct or cross-examination of any witnesses, or testified at the judicial sentencing hearing himself.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, issued [SCOTUSblog materials] a strongly-worded dissent, claiming the Ake decision was intentionally ambiguous, and that more deference should have been granted to Alabama’s Supreme Court ruling.
The death penalty continues to be a point of contention across the US. Earlier this month the Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution [JURIST report] granted by the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for Robert Melson, who challenged the use of midazolam in the three-drug cocktail used in Alabama executions, arguing that it does not properly insensate prisoners to the pain of lethal injection. In May the Delaware House of Representatives passed a bill [JURIST report] that would reinstate the death penalty. In April the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sued [JURIST report] the Food and Drug Administration for banning a shipment of lethal injection drugs to prison officials. Earlier in April Amnesty International released an annual report [text, PDF] revealing the US to not be among the world’s top five executioners since 2006. However, in March the Mississippi house approved a bill [JURIST report] allowing firing squad executions. In March, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a new bill [SB 280, materials] which stated that the death penalty may only be imposed by a judge upon unanimous recommendation from the jury. In January Ohio’s lethal injection protocol was deemed [JURIST report] unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.