by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law
Last week, the Supreme Court at long last ruled on the case of James McWilliams, a man sentenced to death thirty-one years ago in Alabama, without any assistance of a mental health expert, despite evidence that he was psychotic and had organic brain damage. His lawyers argued he had no way to show the jury he did not deserve the death penalty without his own medical expert. The Justices agreed.
The ruling may impact death penalty cases around the country, where mental health evidence is often central. But the ripple effects may be felt across our entire criminal justice system, where as a shocking federal report highlighted last week, vast numbers of people in our jails and prisons have serious mental health issues.
As a fundamental matter of due process, the Justices said in McWilliams’ case, the judge must give a defendant, who cannot afford one, a mental health expert to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” The Court also emphasized that the simplest way to be sure the defendant has a fair trial is to provide a qualified expert.
Instead, what McWilliams received was a “Lunacy Commission”---yes that was what it was called in Alabama---with three experts who readily concluded he was sane and had no relevant mental health problems worth telling the jury about. One government expert did note he had “genuine neuropsychological problems” and records showed he was being given several psychotropic medications in jail, including anti-psychotics. The defense lawyer asked repeatedly for an expert to examine those records and examine McWilliams. The trial judge always refused.