Supreme Court Must Clarify Access to Mental Health Experts for Indigent Defendants

The U.S. Supreme Court must clarify its earlier decision that the Constitution requires the government to provide the assistance of a mental health professional in cases where it is necessary to assure an indigent defendant receives meaningful access to justice, TCP argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on August 19 in support of James Edmond McWilliams’ request that his case be heard

In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees an indigent criminal defendant the right to receive, at state expense, the assistance of a psychiatric expert whenever the defendant’s mental health at the time of the offense is likely to be a significant factor at trial.  Since then, courts around the country have interpreted this constitutional right differently.

“Thousands of indigent criminal defendants have mental health conditions that bear on their culpability or sentence. But depending on where they are tried, they participate in what is, in effect, two very different systems,” TCP said in its brief.

McWilliams was convicted for the 1984 robbery, rape and murder of a convenience store clerk in Tuscaloosa, Ala.  The trial court noted that McWilliams had suffered a severe head injury and subsequently exhibited behavior problems years before the offense, and granted his lawyer’s request for mental health assistance prior to sentencing.  McWilliams was examined by a doctor working for the state, who provided his diagnosis to the defense counsel, the prosecution and the court less than two days before sentencing hearing.  Over the objections of his lawyer, who had not even had an opportunity to consult with the state-appointed doctor about his findings, the judge sentenced McWilliams to death.

As TCP notes in its brief, while the majority of jurisdictions grant the defense access to a dedicated mental health expert working confidentially for the defendant, other jurisdictions, like Alabama, use a “more inquisitorial setting – in a way that is almost uniquely anomalous in our adversarial system of justice – which lacks the confidentiality that best ensures the accuracy and reliability of the assessment.”  TCP is asking the Supreme Court to consider McWilliams’ case in order resolve this disparity.

“In cases turning on issues of mental health, meaningful access to justice requires access to a mental health professional who is dedicated to the defendant,” TCP’s brief argues. It notes that whenever there is a lack of confidentiality – such as when the mental health expert must answer equally to defense and prosecution – the clinician faces an impossible task of establishing the open and honest communication needed to obtain a legitimate assessment of the defendant’s mental health status.

The case is McWilliams v Dunn (No. 16-5294).  McWilliams is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights.  The friend-of-the-court brief was prepared with assistance of Jenner & Block LLP.

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