Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

About

This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

Instructions

Navigate using the table of contents to the left or by using the search box below. Use quotations for an exact phrase search. A search for multiple terms without quotations functions as an “or” search. Not sure where to start? The 5 minute video tutorial offers a guided tour of main features – Launch Tutorial (opens in new tab).

E.g., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

The Court held, in this federal habeas case, that the Alabama courts’ refusal to provide a capital murder defendant with expert mental health assistance was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. After the jury recommended that the defendant receive the death penalty, the trial court scheduled a judicial sentencing hearing for about six weeks later. It also granted a defense motion for neurological and neuropsychological exams on the defendant for use in connection with the sentencing hearing. Consequently, Dr. John Goff, a neuropsychologist employed by the State’s Department of Mental Health, examined the defendant. He filed his report two days before the judicial sentencing hearing. The report concluded, in part, that the defendant presented “some diagnostic dilemmas.” On the one hand, the defendant was “obviously attempting to appear emotionally disturbed” and “exaggerating his neuropsychological problems.” But on the other hand, it was “quite apparent that he ha[d] some genuine neuropsychological problems,” including “cortical dysfunction attributable to right cerebral hemisphere dysfunction.” The report added that the defendant’s “obvious neuropsychological deficit” could be related to his “low frustration tolerance and impulsivity,” and suggested a diagnosis of “organic personality syndrome.” Right before the hearing, defense counsel received updated records indicating that the defendant was taking an assortment of psychotropic medications. Over a defense objection that assistance from a mental health expert was needed to interpret the report and information, the hearing proceeded. The trial court sentenced the defendant to death. It later issued a written sentencing order, finding that the defendant “was not and is not psychotic,” and that “the preponderance of the evidence from these tests and reports show [the defendant] to be feigning, faking, and manipulative.” It further found that even if his mental health issues “did rise to the level of a mitigating circumstance, the aggravating circumstances would far outweigh this as a mitigating circumstance.” The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court on habeas. The Court began by noting that Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U. S. 68 (1985), clearly established that, when certain threshold criteria are met, the State must provide an indigent defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Here, no one denied that the conditions that trigger application of Ake are present: the defendant is and was an indigent defendant, his mental condition was relevant to the punishment he might suffer, and that mental condition--his sanity at the time of the offense--was seriously in question. As a result Ake, required the State to provide the defendant with access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense. The question before the Court was: whether the Alabama courts’ determination that the defendant got all the assistance that Ake requires was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. The defendant urged the Court to answer this question “yes,” asserting that a State must provide an indigent defendant with a qualified mental health expert retained specifically for the defense team, not a neutral expert available to both parties. The Court however found that it need not decide whether this claim is correct. It explained:

Ake clearly established 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 evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” As a practical matter, the simplest way for a State to meet this standard may be to provide a qualified expert retained specifically for the defense team. This appears to be the approach that the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions have adopted. It is not necessary, however, for us to decide whether the Constitution requires States to satisfy Ake’s demands in this way. That is because Alabama here did not meet even Ake’s most basic requirements.

Here, although the defendant was examined by Dr. Goff, neither Goff nor any other expert helped the defense evaluate Goff’s report or the defendant’s extensive medical records and translate these data into a legal strategy; neither Goff nor any other expert helped the defense prepare and present arguments that might, for example, have explained that the defendant’s purported malingering was not necessarily inconsistent with mental illness; and neither Goff nor any other expert helped the defense prepare direct or cross-examination of any witnesses, or testified at the judicial sentencing hearing himself. The Court concluded: “Since Alabama’s provision of mental health assistance fell so dramatically short of what Ake requires, we must conclude that the Alabama court decision affirming [the defendant’s] conviction and sentence was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.”

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion seeking funds to hire an expert to retest DNA samples in this rape and kidnapping case. Prior to trial, the defendant retained an expert to review DNA testing done by the State’s DNA expert. Although the defendant’s expert criticized certain procedures used in the State’s expert and took issue with some of her characterizations of the degree of similarity between the various samples, he did not dispute the ultimate results of that DNA analysis. After this expert submitted his report, the defendant moved for funding to hire another expert to retest the DNA samples. The trial court denied the motion, noting in part that the defendant’s prior expert did not recommend the use of a new, more accurate testing procedure unavailable at the time of the State’s DNA test.

Show Table of Contents