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Case Basics
Docket No. 
(on behalf of Petitioner)
(on behalf of Respondent)
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?

Decision: 5 votes for Ford, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 8: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Yes and yes. In a 7-2 decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall writing for the majority noted that English common law found executing the insane "savage and inhumane." In addition, no State permitted such executions. Opponents of such executions maintained that it "offends humanity" and that such executions had neither a deterrent nor a retributive effect. On the second question, Marshall observed that no state court had heard arguments that Ford was insane. In addition, Florida's competency procedures were inadequate.

Justice Lewis F. Powell, in a separate concurring opinion, agreed that executing an insane inmate violated the Eighth Amendment. For Powell, "the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." Powell argued that Florida's procedure for determining the competency of the inmate violated due process.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined by Justice Byron R. White, dissented in part. They agreed that Florida's procedures did not protect Ford's due process rights but that "the Eighth Amendment does not create a substantive right not to be executed while insane." Justice William H. Rehnquist further, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also maintained that no substantive right was created. In addition, Rehnquist argued that the State's procedures drew sustenance from the common law and were not out of step with contemporary practice.

This abstract was prepared by Adam J. Ruggles, Gloria R. Thornburg, and Peter Watkins.

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FORD v. WAINWRIGHT. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 30 August 2015. <>.
FORD v. WAINWRIGHT, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 30, 2015).
"FORD v. WAINWRIGHT," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 30, 2015,