The Supreme Court said yesterday that it would decide whether the Constitution allows a state to execute an insane person who may not be fully aware of his fate.
The justices said they would hear the case of Alvin Ford, 32, who has spent 11 years on death row in Florida. His lawyers acknowledge that Ford was sane when he killed a Fort Lauderdale policeman during a restaurant robbery in 1974.
But they say his time on death row, during which he saw fellow inmates executed and twice has come within hours of his own execution, has driven Ford insane and that the Constitution forbids his execution.
About 36 of the 41 states with death penalty laws specifically forbid execution of persons who are so mentally ill that they don't understand their impending death or the reasons for it.
The state procedures for protecting the insane from execution vary widely. Some states require mental competency for execution to be determined at a judicial proceeding where each side may present witnesses.
Other states require less formal judicial procedures while others, such as Florida, allow the governor to make the final determination, according to briefs filed in the case.
In this case, two psychiatrists retained by Ford's lawyer concluded that he was a paranoid schizophrenic and incompetent for execution under Florida law.
Ford's lawyer then petitioned Gov. Robert Graham (D), who sent three psychiatrists to examine Ford. All three found him competent for execution. Two found him psychotic and the third concluded that his condition was "contrived and recently learned."
Ford's lawyers argue that the state procedures are inadequate and that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" forbids such executions unless there is "a reliable and accurate fact-finding procedure."
If the high court, which is expected to rule in Ford v. Wainwright by July, finds a federal constitutional barrier to Ford's execution, Florida would provide mental health treatment. If he could be cured of his mental illness, Ford could then be executed.
In another case, the justices said they would decide what procedures the Food and Drug Administration must use to regulate the amount of poisonous materials in the nation's food supply -- substances needed in small quantities to produce food or substances, such as mold, that are sometimes unavoidable despite good manufacturing practices.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last March overturned the FDA's 47-year practice of setting acceptable levels or "tolerances" of such poisons through informal procedures without public hearings.
The appeals court, ruling in favor of two consumer groups, said the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 required the FDA to issue formal regulations. The FDA appealed, arguing that formal rule-making, which would allow for consumer testimony, was time-consuming and burdensome.
The particular substance in the case is aflatoxin, a mold often found on corn and other crops that has been shown to cause cancer in animals. The appeals court reasoning, the FDA argues, could apply to other substances. The case is Young v. Community Nutrition Institute.
In another case, O'Connor v. Ortega, the court agreed to decide whether California officials violated a state employe's civil rights when they entered his locked office without a search warrant, looked through his files and removed records involving a pending investigation of his activities.