Smith v. Murray

477 U.S. 527
Brief Filed: 12/85
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 1986

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 372KB)


Whether information the defendant provides to a mental health professional for the purpose of diagnosis or assessment incident to preparing a defense to a charge of a capital offense can be used against him by the state to establish an aggravating circumstance during the death penalty phase

Index Topic

Confidentiality/Psychotherapist-Patient Privilege; Criminal Defendants' Right to Mental Health Assistance (Psychiatric Evaluations); Death Penalty


Smith was convicted of rape and murder. Early in the legal proceedings, in anticipation of a possible insanity defense, Smith received a psychiatric evaluation. During that evaluation, he disclosed to the psychiatrist that he had molested a child. The insanity defense was not used, but during sentencing, the prosecution called the psychiatrist and elicited testimony of the previous molestation to establish an aggravating circumstance which the jury then used to impose the death penalty. Smith appealed and lost and then filed a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the admission of this psychiatric evidence violated Smith's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, the court did not reverse the death sentence because there were other aggravating circumstances that would support it. Smith sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

APA's Position

APA submitted an amicus brief arguing that: (1) in order to conduct examinations that are appropriate to the issues relevant in capital sentencing proceedings, mental health professionals appointed or retained to assist defendants and their counsel need to obtain from those defendants extensive information about their backgrounds, behavior, thoughts and feelings, including information that could be highly prejudicial to the defendant if revealed to the prosecutor or jury; (2) confidentiality is essential to ensure adequate disclosure by defendants and assistance by the mental health worker; (3) at the consultation stage, before capital defendants and their attorneys have decided whether to present expert mental health testimony at the sentencing hearing, forcing defendants to choose between silence or cooperation with their own retained or appointed mental health expert would directly and unduly burden exercise of the defendants' rights under the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, and would impermissibly compel defendants to forfeit those rights or their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; and (4) in order to dispel confusion caused by the court's references in previous cases to "psychiatrists", the court should make clear that its rulings are intended to also include psychologists and other appropriately trained and licensed mental health professionals.


The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the petition for a writ of habeas corpus because Smith failed to exhaust state remedies by not appealing to the Supreme Court of Virginia.