On June 19th, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of James McWilliams who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an Alabama trial court in 1984. The Court sided with McWilliams who argued that the trial court failed to provide adequate mental health expertise as is required by the Constitution. With a 5-4 decision, the highest court reversed and remanded the lower court’s ruling. Now the Eleventh Circuit will revisit McWilliams’ case to see whether the Supreme Court’s decision has any effect on its judgment.
If a prisoner being held in a state facility believes s/he has been unconstitutionally convicted, that person may seek what is known as habeas corpus in a federal court. Habeas corpus is a type of relief offered to someone wrongfully detained and it is granted solely by federal courts. According to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) – the determining statute for habeas corpus – a detainee must show that the state court’s decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Because of the narrow criteria, prisoners seldom succeed in their attempts to receive habeas relief.
In its decision, the Court considered the case of McWilliams who was put on death row for robbing, raping and murdering Patricia Reynolds who worked as a convenience store clerk until her death in 1984. McWilliams argued before a state court that he had not received the appropriate mental health assessment and that this was in violation of the Constitution.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the opinion for the majority. To begin with, Breyer pointed to Ake v. Oklahoma, a 1985 decision given by the Supreme Court just months before McWilliams was charged with murder. According to Ake, if a defendant’s mental health is “seriously in question” then the court 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.”
According to Breyer, the state failed epically in this regard. Though the state provided a mental health expert, it still neglected the last three requirements. No one aided the defense in reviewing the neuropsychologist’s examination; no one helped prepare a defense strategy around the mental health assessment; and no one assisted the defense in countering the prosecution’s claim that McWilliams was faking symptoms. Thus, Breyer noted, McWilliams’ case satisfied the stringent requirements for habeas relief.
Argument Against the Eleventh Circuit
In building his argument, Breyer noted that the Eleventh Circuit’s contention – that the trial court’s error did not have the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” necessary to constitute habeas corpus – ignored the pertinence of the three aforementioned criteria. Observing that the “trial judge relied heavily on his belief that McWilliams was malingering,” Breyer argued that if the judge had been made aware by a professional that malingering does not preclude mental illness then his view might have been altered. But since the trial court didn’t allow the defense to include the mental health report in its defense, the judge never heard such an argument.
In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito decried the majority’s opinion for veering away from the original question posed by the petitioner. McWilliams came to the Court complaining that the defense should have been given its own mental health expert instead of one neutral expert for both defense and prosecution. This, Alito argued, was the original question, which the majority put aside. “We do not tolerate this sort of bait-and-switch tactic from litigants,” wrote Alito, “and we should not engage in it ourselves.”
Certainly, this decision is a victory for those against capital punishment. However, one wonders if the Supreme Court will ever revisit the question posed by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg in 2015: does capital punishment violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment?” With a conservative majority, the possibility of the court hearing such a case is dim.