(Photo: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty / Flickr)The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state can proceed with the execution of 64-year-old John Erroll Ferguson, despite its finding that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. The decision will be appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state can proceed with the execution of 64-year-old John Erroll Ferguson, despite its finding that he is a paranoid schizophrenic. The Justices upheld the ruling of a lower court, which found that Ferguson’s “Prince of God” delusions, while “genuine”, are not “significantly different than beliefs other Christians may hold.” Gov. Rick Scott has since signed a new death warrant with the execution scheduled for Tuesday, October 23 at 6 p.m.
Christopher Handman, one of Ferguson’s attorneys, tells Truthout that Florida’s method for determining competency is “overly restrictive” and “out of step” with the Constitution, as determined by the US Supreme Court. He says they will appeal to the Supreme Court for a stay and ask that they hear his case.
Ferguson was sentenced to death for a 1977 mass murder in Miami Dade, which he committed shortly after the state released him from a mental hospital against the warnings of several state-appointed psychiatrists. During his incarceration, state appointed experts have continued to diagnose him with paranoid schizophrenia.
The prosecution initially argued that Ferguson was faking his symptoms. But that was shot down last week by Bradford County Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge David Glant who found the testimony of Ferguson’s experts “credible and compelling” and ruled that Ferguson’s delusions are “genuine.” Nevertheless, Glant ruled that Ferguson is competent for execution because his beliefs are in keeping with Christian teachings.
Ferguson expresses the belief, among other things, that he is the “Prince of God” chosen to fight two antichrists alongside Jesus – after which he will rule the world with multiple wives. In his mind, his incarceration is part of a “hardening” process designed by God to prepare him to return to earth after his execution and save America from a communist plot.
Ferguson’s delusions represent a “relatively normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one,” concluded Glant. “There is no evidence in the record that Ferguson’s belief as to his role in the world and what may happen to him in the afterlife is so significantly different from beliefs other Christians may hold so as to consider it a sign of insanity.”
Ferguson’s attorneys immediately appealed Glant’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling, though they ditched the “his delusions are totally normal Christian beliefs” part.
“This is the first time the Florida Supreme Court has had an opportunity to consider the state’s methods for determining competency since the Supreme Court decided Panetti,” Handman told Truthout, referring to a Supreme Court ruling that clarified competency standards.
The US Supreme Court initially banned executing the mentally ill in Ford v. Wainwright (1986), specifically if the inmate lacks the “ability to comprehend the nature of the penalty.” The Court expanded on that view in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), a case brought forward by a psychotic Texas inmate whose case closely resembles Ferguson’s.
Panetti had schizoaffective disorder that led him to believe the state wanted him dead to stop him from preaching. Though Panetti recognized the factual rationale behind his death sentence – that he was found guilty of murdering his ex-wife’s parents – the Supreme Court held that “[a] prisoner’s awareness of the State’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it.” Furthermore, the Court reasoned that executing a prisoner who “has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life” undermines the concept of retributive justice.
Ferguson, like Panetti, thinks that the state wants him dead not because of his crime, but as part of a conspiracy. According to testimony from George W. Woods, an expert in neuropsychiatry who examined Ferguson three times in the last year, Ferguson expresses a belief that “the guards [are] soldiers and communists” who are “going to kill him because they know he is the prince of God and that he has the power and can control the sun,” and that “he has more power than Jesus.”
Ferguson also lacks any understanding of the consequences of execution. He believes death penalty is no match for his special powers which prevent him from ever being killed and that “just like Jesus, you’ll come and look and you won’t find me there [in my grave]“.
Despite all of this, the Florida Supreme Court held that only a factual “awareness” of his crime and the reasons for his sentence are required for Ferguson to qualify as competent. At the same time, the Court denied that Ferguson “believes himself unable to die or that he is being executed for any reason other than the murders he was convicted of in 1978.”
“The State has taken a hardline view that Panetti didn’t change anything,” says Handman. “[Panetti] amplifies the Ford requirements and clarifies the way it’s supposed to be approached because a lot of the lower courts had applied this overly restrictive conception of what it means to be insane. Florida’s statute currently embodies that same flawed conception.”
It’s now up to the US Supreme Court to correct that flaw, because, contends Handman, “No justice will be served by executing a very sick, elderly man.”