Ford v. Wainwright

Following is the case brief for Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986)

Case Summary of Ford v. Wainwright:

  • Petitioner Ford was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
  • Following his sentence, Ford began to act in manner consistent with a serious mental disorder.
  • Ford then went through Florida’s procedure on determining the competency of a condemned prisoner, whereby three psychiatrists interviewed the prisoner and gave the Governor their ultimate decision.
  • Following the procedure, the psychiatrists deemed Ford competent, and the Governor signed his death warrant.
  • Ford’s appeals in state court were denied, so he filed a habeas petition in federal court.
  • The District Court and Court of Appeals denied relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed.  It held that executing the insane violates the Eighth Amendment, and that Florida’s competency proceeding did not comport with due process principles.

Ford v. Wainwright Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Petitioner Ford was convicted of murder in Florida state court and sentenced to death.  There was no indication that Ford had any mental incapacity at the time of the crime, his trial, or his sentencing.  However, following his sentencing, Ford began to display symptoms of a serious mental disorder.  One psychiatrist ultimately concluded that Ford was not competent to suffer execution.  Ford’s counsel invoked Florida’s procedure to determine a condemned prisoner’s competency.

In accordance with the Florida procedure, three psychiatrists interviewed Ford for 30 minutes in total.  All three found that Ford suffered some mental disorder but was sane for purposes of execution.  The Governor then, without explanation, signed Ford’s death warrant.  Ford’s counsel’s attempt to have a hearing in state court was denied.  Ford’s counsel then filed a habeas petition in federal court.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court dismissed Ford’s petition.
  • The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the dismissal.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Does executing the insane violate the Eighth Amendment?
  2. Did Florida’s procedure for determining a condemned prisoner’s competency provide adequate due process?


The decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

  1. Executing the insane is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
  2. A competency determination for a condemned prisoner requires basic due process protections.


Writing for a majority of the Court, Justice Marshall evaluated writings from English law and those that existed at the time the Eighth Amendment.  Those writings revealed that execution of the insane has been considered cruel and unusual for centuries.  In addition, no State in the United States allows the execution of the insane.  Therefore, it is rather easy to conclude that execution of the insane violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Marshall concluded that the Florida procedure to determine competency does not comport with due process.  A full hearing to evaluate Ford, including allowing Ford a right to be heard with evidence of insanity as well as a right to challenge evidence against his claim, is necessary.  The reason for that conclusion is because Florida’s procedure (i) failed to include Ford in the truth-seeking process; (ii) failed to allow Ford to challenge or impeach the psychiatrists’ opinions; and (iii) improperly placed the ultimate decision in the State’s executive branch even though the Governor is not neutral after having overseen all stages of Ford’s prosecution.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Powell):

While Justice Marshall is correct that executing the insane violates the Eighth Amendment and that Florida’s competency proceeding was inadequate, his requirement for a “sanity hearing” is not mandatory.  Due process is a flexible concept.  The State should have some leeway in the way it conducts the competency evaluation.

Concurring in part, Dissenting in part (O’Connor):

The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of the insane.  However, since Florida’s law prohibits the practice, the Court must look at Florida’s competency procedure, and that procedure does not even provide the most minimal due process protections.  The State of Florida, rather than the federal government, should come up with a process to determine competency that comports with due process.

Dissenting Opinion (Rehnquist):

The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of the insane, and Florida’s procedure is fully consistent with the common law heritage of allowing the executive to determine sanity of the condemned.


Ford v. Wainwright is significant because it dealt with an issue that the Court had yet to consider since the Eighth Amendment was incorporated to the States.  That is the issue of whether executing the insane violates the Eighth Amendment.  This case stands for the proposition that it does.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments