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Opinion analysis: Alabama death-row inmate prevails on habeas claim – at least for now

When an inmate being held in a state prison believes that his conviction or sentence violated the U.S. Constitution, he can go to federal court to seek relief – a process known as “habeas corpus.” But once he is in federal court, it is not enough for the inmate to show simply that the state court’s decision against him was wrong. Instead, he has to 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.” It’s a deliberately high bar, which inmates are rarely able to meet – especially in the Supreme Court, which most often agrees to review a case precisely because the lower courts have reached different conclusions about the same legal question, suggesting that the law is not clearly established.

But today a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of James Edmond McWilliams, who is on death row in Alabama for the robbery, rape and murder of Patricia Reynolds, a convenience store clerk. McWilliams had argued in state court that Alabama had not given him access to the kind of expert assistance from a mental health expert that the Constitution requires. The state court’s decision rejecting that argument, a majority of the Supreme Court held today, was indeed “contrary to” or “an unreasonable application of” clearly established law. That conclusion drew a sharp rebuke from Justice Samuel Alito, whose dissent accused the majority of engaging in “a most unseemly maneuver” to rule in McWilliams’ favor. And perhaps even more critically for McWilliams, the justices sent his case back to the court of appeals, which could still rule against him on a different rationale.

In his opinion for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer started with common ground for both sides: the Court’s 1985 decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, which was issued just a month before charges were brought against McWilliams. Ake, Breyer explains, “clearly establishes” that, when a defendant’s mental health at the time of the offense is “seriously in question,” the state must give him access to “a mental health professional capable of performing a certain role: conducting an appropriate examination and assisting in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

For McWilliams, Breyer observed, the state fell “so dramatically short” of the Ake standard that the state court’s decision upholding the inmate’s conviction and sentence does meet the high bar for federal habeas relief. Even if the state could meet the first part of the Ake test by ordering an examination of McWilliams by a neuropsychologist who worked for the state, no one helped McWilliams and his attorneys to evaluate the neuropsychologist’s report, create a legal strategy for his defense, or prepare and present testimony to push back against the suggestion (which the trial judge apparently found convincing) that McWilliams was feigning mental illness.

The court did not, however, give McWilliams everything he had hoped for. McWilliams had argued that, under Ake, he was entitled to “a qualified mental health expert retained specifically for the defense team,” rather than simply “a neutral expert available to both parties.” The majority acknowledged that, as “a practical matter,” giving the defendant his own expert may be the easiest way for the state to make sure that it satisfies the requirements of Ake – and indeed, that is what the “overwhelming majority” of states do. But, the court concluded, its ruling didn’t need to go that far, “because Alabama here did not meet even Ake’s most basic requirements.”

Today’s decision was not a complete victory for McWilliams in another respect, one that could eventually render today’s decision a hollow one. In the proceedings leading up to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had ruled that even if the state courts had misinterpreted Ake, that mistake wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference in the case. The Supreme Court expressed skepticism about that conclusion. The majority noted that the court of appeals had considered only whether additional time to review the neuropsychologist’s report might have changed the outcome of the case. Suggesting that there is “reason to think that” it “would have mattered” if McWilliams and his attorneys had received “the type of meaningful assistance in evaluating, preparing, and presenting the defense that Ake requires,” the justices sent the case back to the lower court for it to make that determination for the first time.

In another case announced today, Alito criticized what he described as “loose rhetoric” and “undisciplined dicta” in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion striking down North Carolina’s ban on the use of social networking sites by convicted sex offenders. Alito had equally strong words (if not more so) for Breyer’s opinion in McWilliams’ case today, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Characterizing the majority’s decision as “an inexcusable departure from sound practice,” Alito essentially complained that the court bent over backwards to rule for McWilliams by deciding the case on a rationale that the justices had originally declined to review and by refusing to decide the question that McWilliams had asked them to take on – whether Ake clearly established that a defendant like McWilliams is entitled to help from a mental health professional who is a member of the defense team, rather than a neutral expert.

The majority did not decide the question presented by the case, Alito stressed, precisely because “Ake did not clearly establish that a defendant is entitled to an expert who is a member of the defense team.” Alito conceded that parts of Ake do support McWilliams’ argument, but he added that other parts of the same opinion point “at least as strongly in the opposite direction.” Indeed, he observed, if “the Justices who joined Justice Marshall’s opinion for the Court had agreed that a defense-team expert must be appointed, it would have been a simple matter for the Court to say so expressly.” But those justices did not, suggesting that the ruling in Ake “is ambiguous, perhaps ‘deliberately’ so.”

Under the Supreme Court’s rules, Alito emphasized, litigants are required to hew closely to the question or questions that the court agrees to review. Litigants who fail to adhere to this rule run the risk of having their case dismissed as improvidently granted. “We do not tolerate this sort of bait-and-switch tactic from litigants,” Alito declared, “and we should not engage in it ourselves.”

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Alabama death-row inmate prevails on habeas claim – at least for now, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 19, 2017, 4:25 PM),