The U.S. Supreme Court’s latest term, which ended this week as the justices began their summer recess, saw death-penalty opponents achieve some notable victories even as the Court moved further away from abolishing capital punishment.
In one of those wins Monday, the justices vacated an Alabama death-row inmate’s sentence after ruling the state had not given him adequate professional assistance to evaluate his mental health during his trial more than three decades ago. The Court said the state’s failure to provide James McWilliams with the experts required under one of its 1985 rulings made his sentence unconstitutional.
“Since Alabama’s provision of mental-health assistance fell so dramatically short of what Ake [v. Oklahoma] requires,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority, “we must conclude that the Alabama court decision affirming McWilliams’s conviction and sentence was ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.’” He quoted from a federal statute governing certain appeals from state courts.
In Ake, the Court ruled that states must provide impoverished defendants with access to “sufficiently independent” mental-health experts for help during trials. Shortly after that ruling came down, McWilliams was charged with the rape and murder of a convenience-store clerk. The trial court appointed John Goff, a neuropsychologist who worked for the state’s Department of Mental Health, to evaluate McWilliams as a neutral party. After he filed his report, the court denied the defense’s request for an independent expert to help them understand the report and its implications.