Ford v. Wainwright

Citation477 U.S. 399,91 L.Ed.2d 335,106 S.Ct. 2595
Decision Date26 June 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-5542,85-5542
PartiesAlvin Bernard FORD, etc., Petitioner v. Louie L. WAINWRIGHT, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

In 1974, petitioner was convicted of murder in a Florida state court and sentenced to death. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent at the time of the offense, at trial, or at sentencing. But subsequently he began to manifest changes in behavior, indicating a mental disorder. This led to extensive separate examinations by two psychiatrists at his counsel's request, one of whom concluded that petitioner was not competent to suffer execution. Counsel then invoked a Florida statute governing the determination of a condemned prisoner's competency. Following the statutory procedures, the Governor appointed three psychiatrists, who together interviewed petitioner for 30 minutes in the presence of eight other people, including petitioner's counsel, the State's attorneys, and correctional officials. The Governor's order directed that the attorneys should not participate in the examination in any adversarial manner. Each psychiatrist filed a separate report with the Governor, to whom the statute delegates the final decision. The reports reached conflicting diagnoses but were in accord on the question of petitioner's competency. Petitioner's counsel then attempted to submit to the Governor other written materials, including the reports of the two psychiatrists who had previously examined petitioner, but the Governor's office refused to inform counsel whether the submission would be considered. The Governor subsequently signed a death warrant without explanation or statement. After unsuccessfully seeking a hearing in state court to determine anew petitioner's competency, his counsel filed a habeas corpus proceeding in Federal District Court, seeking an evidentiary hearing, but the court denied the petition without a hearing, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

752 F.2d 526, reversed and remanded.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, concluding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the State from inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane. The reasons at common law for not condoning the execution of the insane—that such an execution has questionable retributive value, presents no example to others and thus has no deterrence value, and simply offends humanity—have no less logical, moral, and practical force at present. Whether the aim is to protect the condemned from fear and pain without comfort of understanding, or to protect the dignity of society itself from the barbarity of exacting mindless vengeance, the restriction finds enforcement in the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 405-410.

Justice MARSHALL, joined by Justice BRENNAN, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice STEVENS, concluded in Parts III, IV, and V, that Florida's statutory procedures for determining a condemned prisoner's sanity provide inadequate assurance of accuracy to satisfy the requirement of Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 83 S.Ct. 745, 9 L.Ed.2d 770, and that, having been denied a factfinding procedure "adequate to afford a full and fair hearing" on the critical issue as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), petitioner is entitled to a de novo evidentiary hearing in the District Court on the question of his competence to be executed. Pp. 410-418.

(a) No state court has issued any determination to which the presumption of correctness under § 2254(d) could attach, and indeed no state court played any role in the rejection of petitioner's claim of insanity. P. 410.

(b) The first defect in Florida's procedures is the failure to include the prisoner in the truth-seeking process. Any procedure that precludes the prisoner or his counsel from presenting material relevant to his sanity or bars consideration of that material by the factfinder is necessarily inadequate. A related flaw in the procedures is the denial of any opportunity to challenge or impeach the state-appointed psychiatrists' opinions, thus creating a significant possibility that the ultimate decision made in reliance on those experts will be distorted. And perhaps the most striking defect in the procedures is the placement of the ultimate decision wholly within the Executive Branch. The Governor, who appoints the experts and ultimately decides whether the State will be able to carry out the death sentence and whose subordinates have been responsible for initiating every stage of the prosecution, cannot be said to have the neutrality that is necessary for reliability in the factfinding proceedings. Pp. 413-416.

Justice POWELL concluded that the test for whether a prisoner is insane for Eighth Amendment purposes is whether the prisoner is aware of his impending execution and of the reason for it. He further concluded that petitioner's claim falls within this definition, and that because petitioner's claim was not adjudicated fairly within the meaning of due process or of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), petitioner is entitled to have his claim adjudicated on remand by the District Court. Finally, he concluded that the States could satisfy due process by providing an impartial officer or board that can receive evidence and argument from the prisoner's counsel, including expert psychiatric evidence. Beyond these requirements, the States retain substantial discretion to create appropriate procedures. Pp. 419-427.

MARSHALL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts III, IV, and V, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, at 418. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result in part and dissenting in part, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, at 427 REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, at 431.

Richard H. Burr, III, West Palm Beach, Fla., for petitioner.

Joy B. Shearer, West Palm Beach, Fla., for respondent.

Justice MARSHALL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II and an opinion with respect to Parts III, IV, and V, in which Justice BRENNAN, Justice BLACKMUN, and Justice STEVENS join.

For centuries no jurisdiction has countenanced the execution of the insane, yet this Court has never decided whether the Constitution forbids the practice. Today we keep faith with our common-law heritage in holding that it does.


Alvin Bernard Ford was convicted of murder in 1974 and sentenced to death. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent at the time of his offense, at trial, or at sentenc- ing. In early 1982, however, Ford began to manifest gradual changes in behavior. They began as an occasional peculiar idea or confused perception, but became more serious over time. After reading in the newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan had held a rally in nearby Jacksonville, Florida, Ford developed an obsession focused upon the Klan. His letters to various people reveal endless brooding about his "Klan work," and an increasingly pervasive delusion that he had become the target of a complex conspiracy, involving the Klan and assorted others, designed to force him to commit suicide. He believed that the prison guards, part of the conspiracy, had been killing people and putting the bodies in the concrete enclosures used for beds. Later, he began to believe that his women relatives were being tortured and sexually abused somewhere in the prison. This notion developed into a delusion that the people who were tormenting him at the prison had taken members of Ford's family hostage. The hostage delusion took firm hold and expanded, until Ford was reporting that 135 of his friends and family were being held hostage in the prison, and that only he could help them. By "day 287" of the "hostage crisis," the list of hostages had expanded to include "senators, Senator Kennedy, and many other leaders." App. 53. In a letter to the Attorney General of Florida, written in 1983, Ford appeared to assume authority for ending the "crisis," claiming to have fired a number of prison officials. He began to refer to himself as "Pope John Paul, III," and reported having appointed nine new justices to the Florida Supreme Court. Id., at 59.

Counsel for Ford asked a psychiatrist who had examined Ford earlier, Dr. Jamal Amin, to continue seeing him and to recommend appropriate treatment. On the basis of roughly 14 months of evaluation, taped conversations between Ford and his attorneys, letters written by Ford, interviews with Ford's acquaintances, and various medical records, Dr. Amin concluded in 1983 that Ford suffered from "a severe, uncontrollable, mental disease which closely resembles 'Paranoid Schizophrenia With Suicide Potential' "—a "major mental disorder . . . severe enough to substantially affect Mr. Ford's present ability to assist in the defense of his life." Id., at 91.

Ford subsequently refused to see Dr. Amin again, believing him to have joined the conspiracy against him, and Ford's counsel sought assistance from Dr. Harold Kaufman, who interviewed Ford in November 1983. Ford told Dr. Kaufman that "I know there is some sort of death penalty, but I'm free to go whenever I want because it would be illegal and the executioner would be executed." Id., at 65. When asked if he would be executed, Ford replied: "I can't be executed because of the landmark case. I won. Ford v. State will prevent executions all over." Id., at 66. These statements appeared amidst long streams of seemingly unrelated thoughts in rapid succession. Dr. Kaufman concluded that Ford had no understanding of why he was being executed, made no connection between the...

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