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The After The Trial blog presents insights on ongoing and recent trials around the state of Alabama, including weekly criminal law round-ups.

High Court Reverses Another Alabama Death Sentence

J.D. Lloyd - Monday, June 19, 2017


McWilliams v. Dunn, Comm’r ALDOC

 

Question Presented: Did Alabama courts wrongfully conclude McWilliams was not denied meaningful assistance from a mental-health expert under Ake v. Oklahoma?

 

Facts

 

McWilliams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for a 1994 robbery/rape/murder that took place in a convenience store in Tuscaloosa. McWilliams’ mental health was explored in depth during the course of his trial. He was examined by a “Lunacy Commission” composed of three doctors at Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility. After he was convicted and after the jury recommended he be sentenced to death by a vote of 10-2, McWilliams asked for neurological and neuropsychological exams. The court order a Dr. John Goff, a neuropsychologist with the State, to examine McWilliams. However, Dr. Goff’s findings were not based on a complete review of his mental health records. His report was given to McWilliams only 48 hours before the judicial sentencing phase. On the eve of the judicial sentencing hearing, Taylor Hardin and Holman Prison sent defense counsel updated records which had been subpoenaed months before. Trial counsel continuously asked the trial court for an independent expert and a continuance, but these requests were rejected.

 

Eventually, McWilliams case arrived in federal court when he filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for habeas corpus relief. Among other issues, McWilliams argued that the State deprived him of Due Process under Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985). McWilliams argued this denial was a violation of “clearly established federal law” and thus entitled him to habeas corpus relief. The district court denied the request.

 

Ake v. Oklahoma

In Ake, the Court ruled that the Constitution requires the State to provide an indigent defendant with “assistance necessary to prepare an effective defense based on his mental condition” if the defendant’s sanity is in question. The ruling was framed around the concept of the “meaningful access to justice.” The expert should “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

 

Eleventh Circuit Ruling

The Eleventh Circuit denied relief. Initially, the Court concluded that McWilliams failed to meet his burden of showing that “clearly established federal law” entitled him to an independent expert. The Eleventh Circuit noted a split in the circuits regarding whether Ake requires the appointment of an independent expert and that the Supreme Court had never resolved that split. Because the split existed, there was, in the Court’s opinion, no clearly established federal law that could entitled McWilliams relief on this claim. Additionally, the court concluded that the State courts’ determination that Ake had been satisfied was likewise not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

 

Judge Wilson’s dissent

Judge Wilson believed that Ake was not satisfied here. First, the State failed to provide meaningful psychological assistance. McWilliams did not receive any expert assistance until after the sentencing hearing held before the jury. Second, the assistance McWilliams received from Dr. Goff was based on an incomplete review of the mental health records available for consideration. In Judge Wilson’s opinion, this paltry showing did not satisfy Ake and warrants habeas corpus relief.

 

Supreme Court Ruling

The Court ruled that in the particular circumstances of this case, McWilliams’ rights under Ake were not protected. The Court declined to answer the more specific question of whether Ake requires appointment of a mental health expert who is independent of the prosecution because Alabama failed to satisfy “Ake’s most basic requirements.”

 

The Court rejected Alabama’s argument that it complied with Ake by allowing Dr. Goff to examine McWilliams. Ake requires more: “[1] examination and assist in [2] evaluation, [3] preparation, and [4] presentation of the defense.” The Court concluded that even if it were to assume the State satisfied the “examination” requirement, it completely failed to satisfy the last three prongs.

 

While the 11th Circuit had ruled that whatever error McWilliams suffered was “harmless,” the Supreme Court noted that ruling was limited to just the question of whether the requested continuance would have made a difference in McWilliams sentencing. The Court pointed out that on remand the 11th Circuit should consider how the State’s failure to guarantee the remaining three prongs of Ake would have made a difference in McWilliams’ case.

 

Dissent (Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch)

The dissent would have had the Court address the narrow question of whether it is clearly established federal law that Ake requires the appointment of an independent mental health expert. The dissent complains that Alabama didn’t have a chance to address the question the Court actually addressed. However, this simply isn’t true. Alabama briefed the merits of the underlying Ake claim at the merits stage.

 

The 11th Circuit on Remand

The Eleventh Circuit is likely to kick the case back down to the district court to address the full Ake question. It’s hard to see McWilliams’ death sentence standing when the Supreme Court has all but said 3 aspects of Ake weren’t satisfied here.

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.


 

Massive Death Penalty Reform in AL

J.D. Lloyd - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The first bill signed into law by recently-elevated Gov. Kay Ivey repeals Alabama's "judicial override" provision in our death penalty sentencing laws. "Judicial override" refers to situations where a jury recommends that someone convicted of capital murder be punished with life without parole, but the judge "overrides" that recommendation to sentence the defendant to death.

In Alabama, capital murder trials go through two stages: the guilt stage and the penalty stage. In the guilt stage, a jury must decide whether a defendant committed the capital offense he's been charged with. If they convict, the case moves to the penalty phase. In the penalty phase, the State presents a case for the the death penalty and the defense makes a case for life without parole (LWOP). Death or LWOP are the only two sentences possible. The jury hears the evidence and makes a recommendation to the judge as to what the sentence should be. Under Alabama law, the jury has to vote 10-2 in favor of death to make a death recommendation to the court; anything lower is considered a recommendation for LWOP. The judge then has the final sentencing authority. A judge could "override" a jury's LWOP recommendation and sentence a defendant to life.

 

This practice has received extreme criticism through the years. Alabama is the last state to do away with judicial override.
 
Read more about it here.

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.


Alabama's Lethal Injection Survives Another Challenge

J.D. Lloyd - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

 

 

Today, the United States Supreme Court denied an Alabama death-row inmate’s request to review the constitutionality of Alabama’s three-drug execution protocol. Tommy Arthur argued that Alabama’s lethal injection cocktail violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” because the method risks severe and unnecessary pain and suffering. The Court’s refusal to review the protocol almost certainly means that Tommy Arthur, who has been on death row for more than 30 years, will likely be executed soon. It also likely means that defendants who hope to challenge Alabama’s method of execution face a massive uphill battle in future fights.

 

Since lethal injection became the preferred method of execution in the 1980s, almost all states have used a three-drug cocktail to carry out the execution. The first drug administered would be a large amount of a sedative that’s supposed to knock the inmate unconscious and suppress all sensation. The second drug would be a paralytic, which would stop all muscular-skeletal movements, including the diaphragm. The final drug would cause the heart to stop.

 

Until recently, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol was either sodium thiopental. The manufacturer discontinued production of that drug, so states turned to pentobarbital. That drug also became unavailable in 2013. The states then turned to midazolam, the drug at the heart of recent Eighth Amendment litigation.

 

According to experts, midazolam doesn’t have the anesthetic effect of thiopental or pentobarbital. This is important because the second and third drugs administered in the the lethal injection process are extremely painful. Reports describe the pain from these drugs as a searing, burning pain spreading from the injection site throughout the body. Again, they literally stop your breathing and your heart. So, without a strong sedative, an inmate is likely facing an excruciating (and often prolonged) execution.

 

Executions using midazolam have been awful. Defendants executed with the drug in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alabama died slowly and, apparently, very painfully when midazolam has been the first drug administered. (Justice Sotomayor’s dissent below details these executions.)

 

In challenging a method of execution as unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, a defendant must show a readily available constitutional alternative. Here, Arthur argued that there was a constitutional alternative to lethal injection in Alabama: the firing squad. The lower federal courts rejected this claim because Alabama law doesn’t specifically provide for death-by-firing-squad. Because Arthur couldn’t prove a constitutional alternative, the court wouldn’t review his claim that the cocktail using midazolam was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

 

Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent from the the Court’s refusal to consider this case. The dissent pointed out that Alabama recently amended its laws to allow for the execution of a defendant by “any constitutional method of execution.” See 15-18-82.1(c). Justice Sotomayor argued that Arthur met his burden of showing a constitutional alternative, even if that alternative wasn’t on the books in Alabama.

 

The dissent here was largely a critique on the lethal-injection protocol itself and the Court’s refusal to consider how screwed up our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has become when a defendant can show that a method of execution causes unnecessary (and unconstitutional) pain and suffering, but can still be executed with that method because a State doesn’t have another method of execution on the books.

 

Read Sotomayor’s dissent here.

 

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.


 

 

Alabama Criminal Law Round-Up November 1st

J.D. Lloyd - Tuesday, November 01, 2016

 

Here are a few of the criminal law stories that occurred around the state of Alabama this past week:

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.




 

Is Alabama’s Death Penalty Scheme on Life Support?

J.D. Lloyd - Thursday, January 14, 2016

Today, by an 8-1 vote (Justice Alito dissenting), the US Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme in Hurst v Florida . This is huge news in Alabama as our death penalty sentencing scheme is very similar.
 
Under Florida law, a capital offense only exposes a defendant to a punishment of life imprisonment without possibility of parole (“LWOP”). A defendant can be sentenced to death only after the court makes additional findings. Essentially, after the guilt phase, a court conducts a sentencing hearing where a jury will make a sentencing recommendation of LWOP or death. This recommendation is purely advisory. Then, the sentencing judge makes a determination of whether to impose LWOP or death.
 
The Court found this scheme violates Ring v. Arizona, which held that all facts necessary to impose death must be found by the jury. Only judicial -- and not jury -- fact-finding can expose a defendant to death under Florida law. Pursuant to Ring , this scheme violates the Sixth Amendment.
 
In Alabama, we have a similar scheme; however, by statute, a capital conviction exposes a defendant to LWOP or death -- a Florida conviction, standing alone, only exposes a defendant to LWOP. After receiving a recommendation from the jury, the Alabama judge makes the final determination of what sentence to impose. So the sentencing decision still falls upon the judge in Alabama.
 
Whether the Alabama system holds a distinction without a real difference from the Florida law will be litigated in the very near future. Regardless, the reins have been tightened a little more on the death penalty.
 
 
For more information on the decision, click here.

 

 

If you or someone you know has been convicted of wrongful criminal charges, there is hope after the trial. Contact us today by clicking HERE.



 

 

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