Ford v. Wainwright

477 U.S. 399
Brief Filed: 1/86
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 1986

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 559KB)


Whether (1) it is unconstitutional to execute an incompetent person, and (2) the procedural issue of whether Florida's statutory scheme for evaluating the competency of a condemned prisoner meets the requirements of due process

Index Topics

Competency (to be executed); Death Penalty


Prior to execution, Florida law required a competency evaluation conducted by a panel of three psychiatrists (in a group interview). In this case, on the basis of a thirty-minute group interview, the three examiners found that a condemned prisoner, Ford, understood the death penalty — although four other psychiatrists had found him to be psychotic and unable to understand why the death penalty was being applied to him. In spite of the conflicting evidence, the Florida Governor had the power to issue an unreviewable decision based only on the three psychiatrists appointed by him.

APA's position

APA submitted a brief arguing: (1) condemned prisoners of questionable mental competency may not be executed without first having their competency determined through an accurate and reliable fact finding proceeding which requires (a) an adversary hearing where the issue of competency is disputed, (b) the assistance of mental health professionals in the evaluation and preparation of all issues relevant to determining condemned prisoners' competency, (c) decision makers to specify in writing the factors relied upon in making competency determinations; and (2) the procedures followed by the State of Florida in evaluating petitioner's competency to be executed failed to provide an accurate and reliable determination on the issue.


A five member majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause prohibits states from inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane. Although insanity was not defined, a person must be aware of the punishment they are about to suffer and they must understand why they are going to suffer it. The plurality and Justices Powell and O'Connor agreed with APA that Florida's procedures for determining competency did not satisfy due process. Ford had not been afforded a full and fair hearing and did not have the opportunity to be heard. Although the plurality did not go as far as amici had urged concerning the involvement of psychologists and the use of comprehensive psychological assessment in the process, it did recognize the possible need for different or more comprehensive evaluative techniques than a single interview conducted only by psychiatrists. The prisoner should be given the right to offer contrary evidence by the prisoner's own mental health experts.