Ford v. Wainwright Case Brief

Facts of the Case

In 1974, petitioner Alvin Bernard Ford was convicted of murder in a Florida state court and sentenced to death. There was no suggestion that he was incompetent at the time of the offense, at trial, or at sentencing. Nevertheless, he subsequently 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 Ford was not competent to suffer execution. Counsel then invoked a Florida statute governing the determination of a condemned’s competency. Following the statutory procedures, the Governor appointed three psychiatrists, who together interviewed Ford for 30 minutes in the presence of eight other people, including Ford’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 delegated the final decision. The reports reached conflicting diagnoses but were in accord on the question of Ford’s competency. Ford’s counsel then attempted to submit to the Governor other written materials, including the reports of the two psychiatrists who had previously examined Ford, 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 Ford’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 federal court of appeals affirmed.


Can state citizens sue state governments in federal court?


“Yes and yes. In a 7-2 decision reversing and remanding the lower court’s judgment, Justice Thurgood Marshall writing for the five-justice majority noted that English common law found executing the insane “savage and inhumane.” In addition, no State permitted such executions. Opponents of such executions maintained that it “offends humanity” and that such executions had neither a deterrent nor a retributive effect. On the second question, Marshall observed that no state court had heard arguments that Ford was insane. In addition, Florida’s competency procedures were inadequate.Justice Lewis F. Powell, in a separate concurring opinion, agreed that executing an insane inmate violated the Eighth Amendment. For Powell, “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.” Powell argued that Florida’s procedure for determining the competency of the inmate violated due process.Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined by Justice Byron R. White, dissented in part. They agreed that Florida’s procedures did not protect Ford’s due process rights but that “the Eighth Amendment does not create a substantive right not to be executed while insane.” Justice William H. Rehnquist further, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also maintained that no substantive right was created. In addition, Rehnquist argued that the State’s procedures drew sustenance from the common law and were not out of step with contemporary practice.This abstract was prepared by Adam J. Ruggles, Gloria R. Thornburg, and Peter Watkins.”

Case Information

Citation: 477 US 399 (1986)
Argued: Apr 22, 1986
Decided: Jun 26, 1986
Case Brief: 1986