Ake v. Oklahoma – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985), the high court reasoned that "when a State brings its judicial power to bear on an indigent defendant in a criminal proceeding, it must take steps to assure that the defendant has a fair opportunity to present his defense.

This elementary principle, grounded in significant part on the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee of fundamental fairness, derives from the belief that justice cannot be equal where, simply as a result of his poverty, a defendant is denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding in which his liberty is at stake." (Id. at p. 76.)

Thus, the Supreme Court held that the Oklahoma trial court erred in refusing to appoint a psychiatrist for a potential insanity defense in a capital case in which defendant's "behavior ... was so bizarre" at the arraignment "that the trial judge, sua sponte, ordered him to be examined by a psychiatrist" as to whether he was competent to stand trial. (Id. at p. 71.)

Due process required the appointment of an expert because "a criminal trial is fundamentally unfair if the State proceeds against an indigent defendant without making certain that he has access to the raw materials integral to the building of an effective defense." (Id. at p. 77.)

The ability to prepare a defense to criminal charges is the touchstone of the right to appointment of defense experts.

A trial court must appoint an expert for a defendant when necessary to address what is "likely to be a significant factor at trial." (Ake, supra, 470 U.S. at p. 74.)

The United States Supreme Court, relying upon the "due process guarantee of fundamental fairness" implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, id. at 76, held that "when a defendant demonstrates to the trial judge that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must, at a minimum, assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense." Id. at 83.

Ake was a case in which the trial court denied the indigent defendant's request for a state-funded psychiatrist to examine him and assist in presenting his defense of penal irresponsibility. Id. at 72.

The United States Supreme Court held that "when a defendant demonstrates . . . that his sanity at the time of the offense is to be a significant factor at trial, the State must . . . assure the defendant access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense." Ake, 470 U.S. at 83, 105 S. Ct. at 1096.

In determining whether a defendant has established the necessity for the appointment of an expert, the Ake court focused on the following three factors:

"The first is the private interest that will be affected by the action of the State. The second is the governmental interest that will be affected if the safeguard is to be provided. The third is the probable value of the additional or substitute procedural safeguards that are sought, and the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the affected interest if those safeguards are not provided." Id. at 77, 105 S. Ct. at 1093 .