STUDIES: How Often Are Death Row Inmates Spared Because of Insanity?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of inmates who were insane. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger warned that the majority decision “offers an invitation to those who have nothing to lose…to advance entirely spurious claims of insanity.” A new study has examined cases since 1986 in which death row inmates filed claims of mental incompetence and found that the deluge of spurious claims has not materialized. Of the 1,307 people the study considered “Ford-eligible,” that is, those whose cases reached the point at which a Ford claim could be filed, only 6.6% (86) filed claims of incompetency. Of the cases decided on the merits, 22% of the Ford claims were successful, a high success rate when compared to other post-conviction claims in capital cases, implying non-frivolous claims were being filed. A large majority (62.6%) of inmates whose claims of insanity were decided in court had a well-documented history of mental illness, showing that raising an insanity claim was legitimate, even in many of the unsuccessful cases.

Examining success rates among different racial groups, the authors found that African-American inmates were more than three times as likely to succeed on Ford claims than white inmates. The authors suggested this may be due to racial bias before and during capital trials, resulting in more mentally ill African-American defendants being found competent to stand trial and being sentenced to death.

The authors also said their study suggested that some of the successful incompetency claims were actually cases where the inmate should have been found incompetent to stand trial in the first place.

(J. Blume, S. Johnson, and K. Ensler, “Killing the Oblivious: An Empirical Study of Competency to be Executed Litigation,” 79 Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review ___ (2013); DPIC posted April 8, 2014). See Mental Illness and Studies.