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Name: McWilliams v. Dunn
Case #: 16-5294
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 06/19/2017
Subsequent History: 137 S.Ct. 1790

State court unreasonably applied clearly established U.S. Supreme Court precedent in finding that an examination by a competent psychiatrist without more satisfies the expert requirements under Ake v. Oklahoma (1985) 470 U.S. 68. McWilliams was convicted of capital murder in Alabama. The trial court granted defense counsel’s request for neurological testing, and a psychiatrist examined McWilliams. Because the defense received the psychiatrist’s report and additional mental health records right before sentencing, counsel asked for a continuance, telling the court he needed an expert to review the documents. The court ultimately denied the continuance and sentenced McWilliams to death, citing evidence he was malingering. On appeal, McWilliams argued he was denied the right to meaningful expert assistance. After exhausting state court remedies, McWilliams filed a federal habeas petition, which the district court denied. He appealed and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed and remanded. 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. (Ake v. Oklahoma, supra, 470 U.S. 68, 83.) Here, Alabama provided McWilliams with an examination by a competent psychiatrist, but failed to provide him with access to an expert to “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” No expert helped the defense evaluate the medical records or the psychiatrist’s report; prepare direct or cross-examination of any witnesses; or prepare and present arguments that might have explained, for example, why McWilliams’ purported malingering was not necessarily inconsistent with mental illness. Because Alabama failed to meet the basic requirements of Ake, the state court’s finding to the contrary was unreasonable. [Editor’s Note: The court declined to decide whether Ake entitles defendants to an independent defense-team expert. Justice Alito dissented, asserting, inter alia, that the Court should have resolved the question of whether Ake clearly established that the defense is entitled to an independent expert, as this is an open question and was the question on which the Court granted review.]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: