McWilliams v. Dunn

PETITIONER: James E. McWilliams
RESPONDENT: Jefferson S. Dunn, Commissioner, Alabama Dept. of Corrections, et al.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Western Division

DOCKET NO.: 16-5294
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

GRANTED: Jan 13, 2017

Facts of the case

On December 30, 1984, James McWilliams raped and robbed Patricia Reynolds, who died in surgery later that night. McWilliams was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder during robbery in the first degree and murder during rape in the first degree. At the sentencing phase, defense counsel requested that the court order neuropsychological testing for McWilliams. The court did so and ordered that the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) conduct the testing. The DOC doctor who conducted the testing recommended further testing from a doctor who was not affiliated with the DOC. The second doctor’s report was made available to both parties but did not arrive at the court until the day before the sentencing hearing, and the court did not allow a continuance for defense counsel to review the report with the assistance of an expert. At the sentencing hearing, the court concluded that there were aggravating factors but no mitigating factors and sentenced McWilliams to death by electrocution. The conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal in Alabama state courts.


In 2004, McWilliams filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court denied the petition without addressing all of the specific claims, one of which included a claim that he was denied his due process rights under the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma because the court did not provide him with an independent psychiatric expert. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for the district court to address the specific claims in the petition. The district court again denied the petition, and the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision by holding that McWilliams’ due process rights were not violated because he was provided with a competent psychiatric expert, which met the requirement of Ake, and any harm that he might have suffered was not prejudicial to the outcome of the sentencing hearing.


Does the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, which established that an indigent defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance, require that the expert be independent of the prosecution?