Munger Tolles Wins Supreme Court Victory in Pro Bono Death Penalty Case

Munger, Tolles & Olson attorneys, working as co-counsel with Southern Center for Human Rights, achieved a victory in a merits case before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of James McWilliams, an Alabama death row inmate.

Mr. McWilliams was convicted of capital murder in 1986 and subsequently sentenced to death. Mr. McWilliams argued that he had been sentenced to death without the expert mental health assistance required by the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Ake v. Oklahoma.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. McWilliams on June 19, 2017. In a majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court held that the state of Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell “dramatically short of what Ake requires” and was therefore “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” The Court held that a defendant must receive the assistance of a mental health expert who is “sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution” to effectively assist in the preparation and presentation of the defense case.

The Munger Tolles team includes Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Michael B. DeSanctis and Joshua Meltzer.