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Should the Supreme Court Be Required to Set Specific Competency Standards for States to Justly Impose the Death Sentence?

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Michelle Hayden
Student ID #840460529
POLS&200 Final Paper
December 2, 2018


        Should the Supreme Court be required to set specific competency standards for states to justly impose the death sentence?


        Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.  Persons with intellectual disabilities are exempt from execution, noting that they do not have the capacity to maintain the average level of moral culpability in which affects their areas of reasoning, impulse control and judgement.  


        Dusky V US (1958)

        Ford V Wainwright (1986)

        Panetti v Quarterman (2014)

        Seattle Times Article

Daryl Renard Atkins[1] was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1998, even though the defense presented expert evidence that he was “mildly mental retarded” during the trial phase.  Due to a misleading verdict form, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered a second sentencing hearing.  Atkins case is re-heard at the Circuit Court in April 2000, and while the defense witness again presented her evaluation of Atkins, the States’ expert rebuttal witness expressed the opinion that Atkins was of “average intelligence” with antisocial personality disorder.  Again, the jury sentenced Atkins to death.  However later that year September 2000, two justices dissented and argued that the death penalty was no the correct course of action for persons with mental retardation.  In 2002, Atkins case was argued before the Supreme Court where they held that the execution of a mentally retarded person is unconstitutional and was returned to the Supreme Court of Virginia.  The next year, Atkins petitioned to change his sentence from death to life in prison.  His request was denied, and the case was remanded to the Circuit Court of York who ordered a trial to evaluate Atkins’ mental state.  Two years later in 2005, the Circuit Court found Atkins as mentally competent by the Jury, and he was again sentenced to death.  Atkins was scheduled for execution on December 2, 2005 but avoided the punishment when the case was appealed at last minute.  The Virginia Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Circuit Court of York in 2006, finding that inappropriate evidence was brought before the jury.  The prosecutions’ expert witness was also deemed unqualified for the job under Virginia law.  As a result, the case was sent back to the Circuit Court for a second trial.  In January 2008, the Circuit Court commuted Atkins’ sentence from the death penalty to life in prison without bail holding that it is unconstitutional to execute a person with poor intelligence.  

        John Errol Ferguson[2] was diagnosed homicidal and dangerous by a court-appointed psychiatrist when he was acquitted of six robberies and two assault charges on plea of insanity in 1975.  It was argued that a previous brain shot injury when he was 21 years of age and was the reason behind his actions.  He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and believed that he was “The Prince of God” who could not be killed.  As a result, he was sent to the Florida mental hospital, but he later escaped.  In July 1977, Ferguson took part in a home invasion/robbery attempt along with three accomplices (Francois’, White and Archie), during which a mask malfunction resulted in Francois’ face being revealed to 6 of the 8 victims.  One of the gunshot victims who was not fatally wounded observed one of the shootings and heard Ferguson run off.  Another victim was able to testify against the other men in the room.  Francois’ was sentenced to death and executed in 1985; White was sentenced to death as well and executed in 1987; and Archie (who was the getaway driver) pled guilty and was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.  Ferguson, however, had not yet been taken into custody since he had fled the scene.  While under indictment, Ferguson was arrested in his home approximately nine months later in 1978.  After attaining consent to search the apartment, police found a gun similar to one used to shoot and kill two victims (one of which he dragged into the nearby growth to rape before shooting in the head) three months prior.  At some point after his arrest, Ferguson admitted to shooting the couple.  That same year, a jury sentenced Ferguson to death.  Ferguson filed a Direct Appeal with the Florida Supreme Court citing errors made by the prosecution, however his death sentence was affirmed in 1985.  Over the following 30 years Ferguson filed numerous appeals and motions to argue his incompetency, however the Courts continued to conclude in denials stating that he was competent enough for execution.  In 2012, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the scheduled execution of Ferguson within hours of the proceedings.  Even though the state quickly appealed against the stay, there were a set of motions put in place by the Appeals Court which delayed the execution.  On August 5th, 2013 – The U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-minute appeal to stay the execution and Ferguson was executed by lethal injection.  His last words being “I just want everyone to know that I am the prince of God and I will rise again.”  Fergusons’ lawyer criticized the U.S. Supreme Court decision, stating that Ferguson had a fixed delusion that he could not die, and he had no rational understanding of the effect the death penalty would have on him.  

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