Belief and Death: Capital Punishment and the Competence-for-Execution Requirement

Criminal Law and Philosophy 10 (1):17-30 (2016)
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A curious and comparatively neglected element of death penalty jurisprudence in America is my target in this paper. That element concerns the circumstances under which severely mentally disabled persons, incarcerated on death row, may have their sentences carried out. Those circumstances are expressed in a part of the law which turns out to be indefensible. This legal doctrine—competence-for-execution —holds that a condemned, death-row inmate may not be killed if, at the time of his scheduled execution, he lacks an awareness of his impending death or the reasons for it. I argue that the law of CFE should be abandoned, along with the notion that it is permissible to kill the deeply disturbed just so long as they meet some narrow test of readiness to die. By adopting CFE, the courts have been forced to give independent conceptual and moral significance to a standard for competence that simply cannot bear the weight placed upon it. To be executable, CFE requires that a condemned prisoner meet a standard demonstrating an awareness of certain facts about his death. Yet this standard both leads to confusing and counter-intuitive results and is unsupported either by the reasons advanced by the courts on its behalf or by any of the standard theoretical justifications of criminal punishment. If executing the profoundly psychotic or delusional is wrong the law needs a better account of the wrong done when prisoners like Ford are killed. I suggest wherein that wrong might be located.

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David M. Adams
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


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