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Ford v. Wainwright

Cruel And Unusual Punishment?

The broadest significance of Ford v. Wainwright is its overall ruling that the execution of insane persons is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. Although the amendment specifically prohibits "cruel and unusual" punishment, it does not define what such punishment is. But Justice Marshall, in his majority opinion, went a long way towards creating such a definition.

First, said Justice Marshall, we begin with the punishments that were forbidden by English Common Law at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted. In this tradition, executing an insane man is viewed as a kind of cruelty that should not be allowed in civilized society. First, an insane person cannot help think of reasons why he should not be executed, which means that he or she is deprived of rights to protect himself or herself. Moreover, executing the insane frustrates the two main reasons for capital punishment: that it is a deterrent and that it offers retribution. Executing an insane person will hardly deter anyone, and if the insane person does not understand why he or she is being killed, no retribution has been achieved. In addition, executing the insane offends against religion, for insane people cannot make their peace with God. Finally, execution of the insane serves no purpose, because insanity is its own punishment.

Having considered English Common Law, Justice Marshall went on to point out that we must also consider newer notions of fairness. Contemporary punishments have to be measured against the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society . . . " Clearly, our "maturing society" has found it repellent to execute the insane, since no state in the Union had allowed such an action.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Ford v. Wainwright - Significance, Ruling On Insanity, Cruel And Unusual Punishment?, Deciding On Insanity, Implications Of The Forddecision