Incompetent to Serve a Sentence?

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In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), the Supreme Court held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.” In other words, a defendant who was sane at the time of the crime, and competent at the time of his trial, but who later becomes insane may not be put to death. As the Court explained in Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007), it is not appropriate to execute a defendant who lacks a “rational understanding” of the “link between crime and punishment.”

The purpose of this post is to ask whether Ford has any application outside the context of capital punishment. In other words, can a defendant who is sentenced to a term of imprisonment and then becomes insane obtain any relief under Ford? On the one hand, much of the reasoning in Ford and Quarterman arguably applies to noncapital punishments as well. If it is not appropriate to execute a defendant who cannot appreciate the “link between crime and punishment,” why is it appropriate to impose a different punishment upon him? On the other hand, it is well established that “death is different” and that the procedural and substantive constraints surrounding capital punishment are more restrictive than in noncapital proceedings.

If you’ve ever litigated a Ford claim in a noncapital case, please post a comment or otherwise let me know. In North Carolina, there’s a statutory basis for such a claim as well: under G.S. 15A-1001, which provides that “[n]o person may be tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished for a crime when by reason of mental illness or defect he” lacks capacity. I’d be just as interested in a statutory Ford claim as a constitutional one.

I’ve spent a few minutes looking without success for noncapital cases, in North Carolina or elsewhere, in which Ford issues were raised. I did find a single law review article on point, but it didn’t cite any cases either. Dan Markel, Executing Retributivism: Panetti and the Future of the Eighth Amendment, 103 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1163 (2009) (arguing that Panetti “has implications that reach well beyond death penalty cases” and prevents the incarceration of the incompetent). Maybe this suggests that I’m pondering a non-issue, though I suspect that the lack of cases is due in part to the fact that appointed counsel is generally unavailable to post-conviction noncapital defendants.

As a final thought, the practical problems with such claims appear to be daunting. Suppose that such a claim were cognizable. What would happen to a defendant who prevailed on one? The procedures in G.S. 15A-1002 — which generally call for incompetent defendants to be considered for involuntary commitment — were not written with sentenced defendants in mind. Even assuming that those statutes could be adapted, would an incompetent defendant who did not meet the standard for involuntary commitment be released? To my knowledge, no Ford claimant has ever sought that relief, and it’s hard to imagine a court endorsing it given the tsunami of malingering that would likely ensue.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and reactions.

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