Bright Wins Supreme Court Case, ‘McWilliams v. Dunn,’ in 2017 Term

Stephen B. Bright

Stephen B. Bright’s His most recent win in the 2017 term, McWilliams v. Dunn, could have major implications for the criminal justice system. The 5-4 decision handed down June 19 invalidated the death sentence of the petitioner, who was denied expert mental health assistance in his 1986 capital murder trial.
Photo Courtesy of the Daily Report

Imagine walking into a classroom to learn from an attorney who just won a U.S. Supreme Court case. Georgia State Law students do so, learning from one of the South’s sharpest legal minds when they enter Stephen B. Bright’s class.

Bright, former president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) has successfully argued four times before the U.S. Supreme Court. His most recent win in the 2017 term, McWilliams v. Dunn, could have major implications for the criminal justice system. The 5-4 decision handed down June 19 invalidated the death sentence of the petitioner, who was denied expert mental health assistance in his 1986 capital murder trial.

“Steve’s role in the McWilliams case provides a shining example for our students not only because it ended in a win and will impact cases for years to come, but also because the Southern Center’s work on the case is a prime example of the difference that effective lawyering can make to one client – in this case, the difference between life and death,” said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, faculty director for the Center for Access to Justice and associate professor of law. A former attorney for the Southern Center, Lucas worked on the McWilliams case during her time there.

“As many of our students have already seen through their clinic experiences and pro bono work, they do and will have the ability to offer critical assistance to people who cannot afford to hire an attorney,” said Lucas, who was a student of Bright’s at Harvard Law School. “That help can radically alter the course of a client’s life.”

The petitioner, James McWilliams Jr., was convicted of rape and murder in Alabama. His lawyer requested a continuance and an independent psychiatrist to review neurological and neuropsychological test findings filed two days before the sentencing hearing, as well as previously subpoenaed mental health records from the Alabama Department of Corrections. The judge rejected counsel’s pleas and sentenced McWilliams to death.

Bright argued that the denial of an independent expert violated his client’s constitutional rights established in Ake v. Oklahoma. The Supreme Court’s reversal is important not only to James McWilliams, but to other poor people accused of crimes who cannot receive a fair trial without access to experts, Bright said.

“Two of the executions planned for Arkansas last month were stayed pending the outcome of McWilliams,” Bright said. “This is about fairness. It is not fair for a person to face the death penalty without being able to even consult with an expert while the prosecution can hire any expert it wants and as many experts as it wants.”

Bright said it was a close and difficult case and he was relieved to get the opinion. “I look forward to integrating not only the decision, but the briefing and argument into my future classes,” he said.

Bright is teaching a course this summer on the prosecution and defense of capital and other criminal cases. In each of his three previous cases before the Supreme Court, Foster v. ChatmanSnyder v. Louisiana and Amadeo v. Zant, the Court found racial discrimination in jury selection and reversed the convictions and death sentences.

“Stephen’s level of advocacy and commitment to the plight of the indigent is legendary in the legal community. It’s amazing that our students have the opportunity to learn from a true master who has devoted his life to this work and along the way established some remarkable case law with his Supreme Court work,” said Jessica Gabel Cino, associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of law. “The McWilliams decision underscores a criminal defendant’s right to a real defense — one that includes expert witnesses identified by the defense team.”

In addition to teaching, Bright works with Georgia State Law’s Center for Access to Justice faculty, advising on the center’s initiatives, programming and curricular development.

“At the core of the center’s mission is ensuring that all individuals – regardless of income – have meaningful access to justice, which is something the Court highlighted specifically in the McWilliams opinion and has been the central theme of Steve’s legal career,” Lucas said.

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