Constitution Check: When is an individual too mentally ill to be executed for his crimes?

In 1986, the Supreme Court forbid the execution of an individual convicted of murder, if that person was mentally incompetent at the time of the scheduled execution.  An evolving case in Florida has brought that decision back into the headlines.

The statement at issue:

“A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.”

– Christopher T. Handman, a Washington lawyer representing Florida death-row inmate John Errol Ferguson, in a statement October 23 as the Supreme Court and lower federal and state courts pondered whether to allow Ferguson to be executed for eight murders committed 35 years ago. On Tuesday night, the drama came to at least a temporary end when a federal appeals court delayed the execution in order to study the constitutional standards to apply.

We checked the Constitution, and…

For the past quarter of a century, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” to forbid the execution of an individual convicted of murder, if that person was mentally incompetent at the time of the scheduled execution. That declaration came first in 1986, in the case of Ford v. Wainwright.

At that time, the court said society would not tolerate “executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life.”

Ever since then, the justices and judges on lower courts have been attempting to further clarify that understanding.

The justices themselves tried to give further guidance in 2007 in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman. It was not enough, the court said, that the convicted individual understands that he has committed murder, that he is going to be put to death, and that those murders are the reason for his execution. Those are facts, and awareness of them is not sufficient, according to that ruling.

There must be proof, it added, that the individual has a “rational understanding” of what will happen to him and why. The court suggested that an individual would not be competent enough to be executed if he suffered from “gross delusions preventing him from understanding the meaning and purpose of the punishment.”

About Constitution Check

  • In a continuing series of posts, Lyle Denniston provides responses based on the Constitution and its history to public statements about its meaning and what duties it imposes or rights it protects.

For the past week, state and federal courts in Florida and the Supreme Court have been examining whether those standards have been satisfied in the case of multiple murderer John Ferguson. Four times, the Supreme Court refused to delay the execution, and most of the time it was unanimous. Lower courts, too, seemed satisfied that Ferguson was sufficiently aware of his impending execution and its meaning. None of them doubted that Ferguson suffers from a severe psychotic disorder, but disagreement kept emerging about whether his mind was sound enough to allow him to be put to death, or whether he was “malingering”–faking or exaggerating his disorder.

Repeatedly, Ferguson’s lawyers and lawyers for the state of Florida battled back and forth, in one court and then another, over whether the Supreme Court’s decisions in 1986 and 2007 had been followed in Ferguson’s case. Little clarity was forthcoming at any of the levels of the judiciary where the filings were made and Ferguson kept losing.

Finally, on the verge of the state-imposed Wednesday evening deadline for the execution, a federal judge in Florida found sufficient doubt about the Florida Supreme Court’s rejection of the challenge by Ferguson’s lawyers to urge the next higher court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, to make a new study of the standards to be applied.

Without an explanation, but indicating that, at this stage, it had next to no choice in the matter, the appeals court told lawyers to come back between now and November 6 with full written arguments on what the Supreme Court meant in its prior rulings, and how that applied to Ferguson. In the meantime, Florida was ordered not to carry out Ferguson’s execution.

Although no one faults the lawyers on either side or the judges involved for a lack of diligence as the process unfolded, it is clear that no one involved can be expected to perform at the highest professional level when a case is unfolding swiftly, with an air of desperation setting in on the side of the doomed individual’s legal team and an air of frustration setting in for the state that has waited decades to carry out a criminal’s sentence.

Issues over the meaning of the Eighth Amendment are as profound in moral terms as in constitutional terms, and yet the ticking of a clock toward an imminent execution deadline may not create the atmosphere necessary for calm and reasoned deliberation on anybody’s part. No one, so far, has devised a method for avoiding these eleventh-hour legal contests, but someone needs to think of one. Without one, a rush to judgment seems almost inevitable.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s Adviser on Constitutional Literacy. He has reported on the Supreme Court for 54 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearinghouse of information about the Supreme Court’s work.

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