Ford v. Wainwright

RESPONDENT: Wainwright
LOCATION: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare

DOCKET NO.: 85-5542
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 477 US 399 (1986)
ARGUED: Apr 22, 1986
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1986

Joy B. Shearer - on behalf of Respondent
Richard H. Burr, III - on behalf of Petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1974, a Florida court sentenced Alvin Bernard Ford to death for first-degree murder. At the time of the murder, trial, and sentencing phase, there was no indication that Ford was suffering from any mental deficiencies. While awaiting execution, Ford's mental condition worsened. His competency was assessed in accordance with Florida procedures. Following this assessment, Florida's Governor signed Ford's death warrant. A state court declined to hear arguments raised about Ford's competency. Without the benefit of a hearing, Ford's habeas corpus petition was then denied by the a federal district court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.


  1. Does the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the imposition of the death penalty upon the insane?

  2. Did the Federal District Court err when it declined to hear Ford's petition?

Media for Ford v. Wainwright

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 22, 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Burr, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Richard H. Burr, III:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The case of Alvin Ford is before you today on a record which raises grave questions about Mr. Ford's competence to be executed, notwithstanding the Governor's determination in Florida that Mr. Ford is competent.

The record shows a gradual, unrelenting deterioration of Mr. Ford's mental health from late December 1981 to the present.

The record shows that by 1982 Mr. Ford was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia by a psychiatrist familiar with his medical history.

Yet, this psychiatrist's recommendation for therapy and medication was ignored by prison staff.

The record further shows that by late 1983, when Mr. Ford's deterioration began to compromise his competence to be executed, he was examined by three psychiatrists appointed by the Governor of Florida and by a fourth psychiatrist at the request of defense counsel.

Three of these psychiatrists agreed that Mr. Ford suffered from psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia.

The record shows that, despite this substantial agreement on medical diagnosis, the Governor's psychiatrists disagreed with the defense psychiatrist concerning the legal consequences as to Mr. Ford's competency of his medical condition.

Finally, the record shows that in determining Mr. Ford's competence to be executed, the Florida Governor held no hearing of any kind to sort out which of the conflicting psychiatric opinions was more reliable.

Indeed, the record shows that the Governor may not have even considered the opinion and reasoning of the defense psychiatrist who found that Mr. Ford was incompetent to be executed.

These deficiencies in the Governor's competency determination process created, we submit, a grave risk that the decision that Mr. Ford was competent was erroneous.

Warren E. Burger:

What you're going at is to tell us that the Florida statute which prescribes the method for dealing with this problem is invalid, is that it?

Or is it the way in which they applied the statute?

Which is it?

Richard H. Burr, III:

The statutory procedure, we submit, does not provide a sufficiently reliable process for the determination of competence.

Warren E. Burger:

You think it must be an adversary process?

Richard H. Burr, III:

Yes, Your Honor, I do.

Byron R. White:

Well, what if all the psychiatrists had agreed?

Richard H. Burr, III:

If all the psychiatrists had agreed that Mr. Ford was competent, I think there would be no issue.

We would certainly agree--

Byron R. White:

Well, I thought you were saying that this procedure, this provision, is invalid on its face.

Richard H. Burr, III:

--Well, I think, Your Honor, there would have to be some threshold showing of incompetency, similar to a threshold showing of incompetency before trial, for example.

Byron R. White:

Well, let's assume there is a threshold showing, but then all the psychiatrists agree.

Richard H. Burr, III:

Well, if there is a threshold showing of incompetency, then whatever procedure follows that results in all expert opinion being unanimous, then the procedure would likely be at an end, because there'd be no issue to litigate.

Byron R. White:

So it's just a question of the application of this procedure in any particular case that you're--

Richard H. Burr, III:

Well, I think--

Byron R. White:

--That triggers any kind of constitutional problem?

Richard H. Burr, III:

--In a case where competency is seriously in question, this procedure we submit is inadequate.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Burr, this Court has never held that it's required that a defendant be found competent before he can be executed, has it?