Incompetence to be Executed

In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the execution of a prisoner who is insane. Three Justices joined Justice Marshall in concluding that Florida's procedure for determining the sanity of a condemned prisoner -- the appointment by the governor of a commission of psychiatrists -- did not comport with due process, inasmuch as (1) the prisoner was not allowed to submit relevant materials to the commission or to challenge evidence presented by the prosecution and (2) the entire process was placed in the hands of the executive, the very branch that was pressing for the prisoner's execution. Justice Powell, in his opinion concurring in the judgment, stated that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it. Furthermore, although he agreed that Florida improperly denied prisoners the opportunity to be heard, he argued that due process would be satisfied by a nonjudicial procedure far less formal than a trial. Justice O'Connor, though not joining in the majority’s Eighth Amendment holding, concluded that due process demands that a prisoner be given the opportunity to be heard.

More recently, in Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 127 S.Ct. 2852 (2007), the Supreme Court addressed a Ford claim that was raised post-AEDPA. Noting that there was no majority opinion in Ford, the Court ruled that Justice Powell’s concurring opinion constituted "the ‘clearly established’ law for purposes of §2254 and set[] the minimum procedures a State must provide to a prisoner raising a Ford-based competency claim." 127 S.Ct. at 2856. Finding the state court’s procedures to be defective in numerous regards, the Supreme Court concluded that Ford had not been reasonably applied. And because the ultimate adjudication of Panetti’s incompetence-to-be- executed claim was "dependent on an antecedent unreasonable application of federal law," the Supreme Court found that the requirement set forth in §2254(d)(1) was satisfied and the federal court could resolve the claim de novo. As for the merits, the Supreme Court found that the Fifth Circuit had too narrowly construed the competency standard set forth in Justice Powell’s concurring opinion. The Fifth Circuit had concluded that an inmate’s delusional belief system was irrelevant so long as the inmate understood that the State had identified the capital offense as the reason for the execution. The Supreme Court responded: "A prisoner’s awareness of the State’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it. Ford does not foreclose inquiry into the latter." 127 S.Ct. at 2862. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Click here to view a list of cases addressing when to bring a Ford claim.
Click here to view a list of cases involving successful Ford claims.
Click here to view a list of cases with unsuccessful Ford claims.
Click here to view a list of cases concerning forced medication for the purpose of rendering an inmate competent to be executed. The case lists were last updated March 1, 2009.