Ake v. Oklahoma

(Federal, Right to Psychiatric Expert for Criminal Responsibility)

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DECISION: Indigent criminal defendant held entitled to assistance of psychiatrist when sanity at time of offense is seriously in question.

SUMMARY: An indigent was charged with murdering a couple and wounding their two children. At a pretrial conference in an Oklahoma trial court, the defense counsel informed the  court that the defendant would raise an insanity defense, and asked the court to arrange to have a psychiatrist perform an examination, or to provide funds to allow the defense to arrange one, since no inquiry had been made into the defendant’s sanity at the time of the offense. The trial judge denied the motion. At the guilt phase, the sole defense was insanity, but there was no expert testimony for either side on the issue of the defendant’s sanity at the time of the offense. The jury convicted the defendant on all counts. At the capital sentencing phase, the defendant had no expert witness to rebut the prosecution’s testimony as to his future dangerousness, an aggravating factor, and the jury sentenced him to death. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, holding that the defendant was not entitled to the services of a court-appointed psychiatrist (663 P2d 1).

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded. In an opinion by Marshall, J., joined by Brennan, White, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, and O’Connor, JJ., it was held (1) that when a defendant in a criminal prosecution makes a preliminary showing that his  sanity at the time of the offense is likely to be a significant factor at trial the Constitution requires that the state provide the defendant access to a psychiatrist if the defendant cannot otherwise afford one; (2) that a defendant is similarly entitled to the assistance of a psychiatrist at a capital sentencing proceeding at which the state presents psychiatric evidence of the defendant’s future dangerousness; and (3) that under the facts presented, the defendant’s sanity was a significant factor at both the guilt and sentencing phases and that  he denial of psychiatric assistance constituted a deprivation of due process.

Burger, Ch. J., concurred in the judgment, expressing the view that nothing in the court’s opinion reached noncapital cases.

Rehnquist, J., dissented, expressing the view that an indigent criminal defendant’s access to a psychiatrist should be limited to capital cases and that the entitlement is to an independent psychiatric evaluation, not to a defense consultant.

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