Ferguson v. Florida: Rationally understanding competence to be executed?

Christopher S. Wadsworth, William J. Newman, Paul R S Burton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The U.S. Supreme Court addressed competency to be executed in Ford v. Wainwright, holding that execution of the insane violates the Eighth Amendment. More than 20 years later, the Court defined this standard in its landmark decision in Panetti v. Quarterman. The Panetti ruling held that an inmate's factual awareness of the reasons for his execution was not sufficient to determine his competence. The Court advised that a prisoner must have a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence. The Panetti Court declined to establish specific competency criteria and acknowledged that rational understanding is difficult to define. Following Ford and Panetti, lower courts have struggled to apply the standards articulated in these two landmark cases. This struggle was recently highlighted in Ferguson v. Florida (2013), a case that received substantial attention and was decided by the Florida Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court. Ferguson featured majority and concurring opinions that, although consistent in their ultimate conclusions, expressed differing interpretations of their application of the Panetti standard. Although the Panetti Court declined to set a national standard for competency to be executed, Ferguson v. Florida is a cautionary reminder that more tangible guidelines are necessary for consistent application of a conclusion that cannot be revised.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)234-241
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Medicine(all)


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