Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Throughout Anglo-American legal history, there has been a general agreement, based on numerous rationales, that mentally incompetent inmates should not be executed for their crimes. The recurring problem, however, is how to define "incompetence" or "insanity." Legislatures and courts have sought to provide a common- sense definition, but in practice judges must confront highly technical terminology from the ever evolving field of psychiatry. Additionally, the definition must be flexible enough to apply to a variety of cases, while being universal enough to assure that all defendants are treated fairly and equally.

At hearings to determine a prisoner's competency to be executed, courts usually hear testimony from several qualified mental health experts, each offering his or her own version of an inmate's level of mental illness. In the end, however, judges must make the final determination of competency--a decision that literally decides an inmate's fate. Numerous articles and notes have addressed the general philosophical or moral problems with measuring competency to incur the death penalty. Some commentators view the problem from the perspective of psychiatrists or psychologists; others consider specific problems such as drug-induced competency. This Note will approach the problem from a different perspective- that of the courts. By understanding the unenviable position in which current statutory and common law definitions place judges, it will become apparent that state legislatures, or perhaps the Supreme Court, need to provide more sensible standards for judges to use in determining competency to be executed.

Part II of this Note provides a brief explanation of the long- standing common law rule against executing the insane, as well as the traditional rationales for the rule. Additionally, Part II offers a summary of the Supreme Court's determination that the Eighth Amendment prohibits executing the insane, as set forth in Ford v. Wainwright. The plurality in Ford examined the procedural requirements for determining competency to be executed, but did not provide a proper definition of "competency" to be used in such proceedings." Justice Powell's concurring opinion, on the other hand, found that the appropriate standard is whether the prisoner is aware of the punishment she is about to suffer and the reasons she is to suffer it. Finally, Part II provides a brief explanation of the American Bar Association's view that courts should also consider a prisoner's ability to assist counsel in her own defense.

Part III summarizes the current standards for measuring competency used in several key states, focusing on Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The standards can generally be divided into two categories: the single-prong "cognitive" test, and the two-prong "assistance" test. Part IV then describes in detail three recent cases applying the various rules, all of which display the daunting task judges face in weighing conflicting expert testimony.

Part V of this Note discusses the numerous problems with these standards for measuring competency. The major concerns re- late to defining when an execution is "imminent" so that a competency determination is appropriate, deciding which terminology to use in making this determination, and understanding the role of the judge in applying the testimony of mental health experts to the common language definition of competency provided in state statutes.

Finally, Part VI of this Note suggests that state legislatures need to be more meticulous with the exact language they use when defining "incompetency," specifically considering the language that expert witnesses will use. As a more uniform solution, this Note proposes that the Supreme Court complete what it initiated in Ford v. Wainwright by more specifically defining the applicable standard courts should use in determining a person's competency to face the death penalty.