Execution of Insane Barred by High Court

Associated Press

The Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” bars states from executing any insane person, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote today.

The court, by a separate 7-2 vote, ruled that Florida must hold new hearings into the mental competency of convicted murderer Alvin Ford, whose lawyers say he became insane while a Death Row inmate.

All 38 states with death penalty laws, including Florida, have policies against executing mentally incompetent people even if they were competent when they committed their crimes.

But until today, the nation’s highest court never had said that such a policy is constitutionally required.


Court’s Conclusions

In splintered voting, the court today reached these conclusions:

--Ford, if he is insane, cannot be executed for the 1974 murder of Fort Lauderdale policeman Walter Ilyankoff.

--If he is insane, he could be executed once he is cured.


--The procedure Florida used in determining that Ford is sane violated his due-process rights. Seven justices said Florida must provide Ford with a hearing where his lawyers and the state’s lawyers may present evidence as to his mental competence.

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

Insane Protected

Marshall said the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment protects the insane from execution “whether its aim be 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.”


Marshall was joined in that portion of his opinion by Justices William J. Brennan, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell and John Paul Stevens.

Turning to how state officials determined Ford is sane and can be executed, Marshall said the procedure used under Florida law “provides inadequate assurances of accuracy.”

Psychiatrists Disagree

Under state law, a three-psychiatrist commission appointed by Florida Gov. Bob Graham in 1983 found Ford to be competent for execution. Two psychiatrists hired by Ford’s public defenders found him to be a paranoid schizophrenic who is mentally incompetent to understand why he is to be executed.


Dissenting from the court’s holding on the constitutional ban on executing insane people were Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor and Byron R. White.

O’Connor and White, however, joined that part of the majority ruling requiring Florida to adopt a new hearing procedure for determining sanity.