Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fourth Circuit Adopts Narrow Test for Determining Incompetence to Be Executed

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fourth Circuit Adopts Narrow Test for Determining Incompetence to Be Executed

Article excerpt

Sitting en banc, the Fourth Circuit in a seven-to-six ruling held that the test for determining whether a criminal defendant is competent to be executed is limited to whether the condemned inmate is able to comprehend that he or she is sentenced to death and the reason why.

Percy Levar Walton, who received a death sentence after he pled guilty to murdering in 1996 three people in Danville, Virginia, had argued on appeal that (1) the trial court had applied the wrong legal standard in determining his competence to be executed, (2) the evidence showed he was incompetent to be executed, and (3) he was mentally retarded and thus under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), was not subject to the death penalty.

In rejecting this appeal, the Fourth Circuit began by noting that a majority of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), agreed that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of the insane because the retributive value of execution is thwarted if the individual does not understand the reason for the execution. The Fourth Circuit concluded, however, that Ford established that an inmate is incompetent to be executed only when the inmate is unable to comprehend that he or she is to be executed as punishment for his crime. The Fourth Circuit added that this limited test has been widely recognized or adopted, citing rulings from the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, enactments by Congress and the legislatures of Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Utah, and Wyoming, and rulings by the high courts of Indiana and Tennessee.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Walton's argument that an inmate should also be found incompetent if the inmate is unable to assist his or her counsel during the competency determination process. The court reasoned that the "exhaustive" modern safeguards and procedures available to condemned inmates ensure that the outcome is not tainted because of a failure to discover a trial error that a competent inmate might have pointed out. Although the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that some states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington, specifically require that an inmate be able to assist counsel to be deemed competent to be executed, the court determined that this was not a Constitutional requirement and because Virginia has not adopted this standard, it was not applicable in this case.

The Fourth Circuit similarly rejected Walton's argument that the test should include an examination of whether a condemned inmate has the capacity to prepare mentally and spiritually for his or her passing. The court noted a lack of precedent supporting this proposed test.

Where the majority primarily diverged from the dissent was in what was to be considered in determining whether inmates understand why they are being executed. The dissent asserted that inmates must have at least a rudimentary comprehension that execution will mean their death, defined as the end of their physical life. In other words, the dissent argued, the constitutional question "Do you understand that your execution will cause you to die?" cannot be meaningfully answered unless a condemned inmate understands what it means "to die."

The dissent stressed that this test did not shield inmates who because of their beliefs about an afterlife did not see the end of their physical life as a cause for concern. But it did require an ability to grasp the concept that execution will cause the heart to stop beating and brain activity to cease. …

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