Execution of Insane Prisoners Banned by Supreme Court

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, recognizing a centuries-old legal tradition, ruled Thursday that the Constitution forbids the execution of insane prisoners--and said also that states must provide impartial hearings for Death Row inmates whose mental competence is at issue.

The execution of the insane has long been barred under common law--and all 38 states that currently have capital punishment specifically prohibit it.

But, not until now have the justices ruled that imposing the death penalty on those who cannot understand why they are being executed violates the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

“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, the restriction finds enforcement in the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the court in a 5-4 decision.

The justices upheld an appeal on behalf of Alvin Ford, a 32-year-old Florida inmate whose lawyers say calls himself Pope John III and declares that he has purchased the prison in which he has been held for 11 years for the murder of a Fort Lauderdale police officer.


Ford was convicted and sentenced to death in 1974 and was apparently competent at the time. His lawyers later contended that he had become insane while on Death Row and sought to block his execution.

Three psychiatrists appointed by Gov. Bob Graham in 1983 found Ford competent, and the governor approved the execution, disregarding a finding by a psychiatrist hired by the defense that Ford’s mental state prevented him from understanding why he was to die. Under Florida law, the determination of sanity is made by the governor, acting on recommendations made by a panel of state-appointed psychiatrists.

The court, in a separate 7-2 vote, said the state had failed to make a fair and neutral determination of claims that Ford had become insane while on Death Row and said he could not be executed without a new hearing under new procedures.

A majority of the justices indicated that, although a full-scale trial was not required, states at least must provide an impartial official or board to receive evidence and argument from a prisoner’s counsel, including independent psychiatric evidence.

Authorities said that, although the decision was not likely to have a major impact on pending appeals among the nation’s 1,700 Death Row inmates, it would undoubtedly require extensive review and revision of the widely varying procedures states now employ to determine the mental competence of persons facing execution.

According to Sanford L. Bohrer, an attorney representing the Florida Mental Health Assn. and other groups in the case, a recent review of existing laws indicates that most states do not now guarantee condemned inmates the right to an independent determination of sanity and instead give state officials wide discretion in making such decisions.

“Many states appear not to meet the court’s standards,” Bohrer said. “At the minimum, they’re going to have to give an inmate or his lawyer a fair opportunity to be heard when the claim of insanity is raised.”

The effect of the ruling in California was uncertain. Under existing law, when a Death Row inmate is within 20 days of execution, he undergoes a series of psychiatric examinations by state medical staff members. If their reports indicate that there is “good reason” to doubt the inmate’s sanity, the warden is to notify a district attorney, and a jury trial is held.

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Pete Wilkinson said it appeared that California’s procedures would meet the court’s new standards. Even if a warden refused to institute the proceedings, it is likely that an inmate’s attorney would take the issue to court independently, ensuring a fair hearing.

In the part of his opinion invoking the Constitution to prevent execution of the insane, Marshall was joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and John Paul Stevens.

The other four members of the court--Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Byron R. White, William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor--said that there was nothing in the Eighth Amendment mandating such a prohibition.

Rehnquist, joined by Burger, issued a dissent saying that the court had “created a constitutional right that no state seeks to violate"--and had invited spurious and time-consuming claims of insanity by Death Row inmates.