Florida is (again) scheduled to kill a man who many say is too sick to die.
John Errol Ferguson -- a 65-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who claims he is the "prince of God," has powers from the sun, and will be resurrected after death to foil a communist plot against America -- is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Monday for the brutal killings of eight people, one of whom he raped before fatally shooting, in 1977 and 1978.
But the law on this is very clear. Executing the severely mentally ill is unconstitutional, say the ACLU, American Bar Association, and other rights groups.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court, which currently has before it Ferguson's petition for a stay of execution, has twice ruled that such executions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the second case, 2007's Panetti v. Quarterman, stated that a "prisoner's awareness of the state's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." (Basically, criminal defendants have to rationally grasp their punishment and the judicial process and understand right from wrong. It's not enough to know intellectually that they are going to be executed.)
Monday marks the second time Florida will try to execute Ferguson. And the appeals process has been a typical Florida shitshow.
It started in October when the defendant's sentence was scheduled to be carried out after a committee, convened by Rick Scott to evaluate Ferguson's mental competency, agreed the defendant was sane enough to be legally put to death.
The committee's report, however, was rife with shortcuts and omissions -- like failing to note Ferguson's extensive mental health history pre-1978. The report, which was one and half pages (Ferguson's medical history, on the other hand, spans thousands of pages), conceded that the defendant exhibited psychotic symptoms. But it contended that Ferguson faked all the psychoses, from "shadow people" to "his divine role in driving away the Communist threat."
Ferguson's attorney, Christopher Handman, responded with an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, which in turn agreed Ferguson was mentally competent, reasoning that he was "aware" he was about to be executed.
But that doesn't pass the SCOTUS smell test per Kennedy's opinion.
So at the eleventh hour, after Ferguson's final meal, when it seemed hopeless, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted a stay, agreeing to look into whether Florida's Court had applied the standard and spirit of the law set by the Supreme Court.
Then, the defense alleges, the Circuit Court, despite finding fault with the original commission, also applied the same wrong standard as the state supreme court.
So here we are, Florida.
Four days before Ferguson is scheduled to be executed, a petition for a stay lies before the Supreme Court.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, along with the Florida Psychological Association and Florida Psychiatric Society, has jumped in the ring, filing an amicus brief with the Court yesterday to stop the execution.
"The Florida Supreme Court, in finding Ferguson competent to be executed, did not adequately consider Ferguson's highly delusional and irrational state of mind," said NAMI Florida executive director Judith Evans in a statement to New Times. "Distinguishing between one's intellectual understanding of execution on the one hand and one's rational understanding on the other is a clear requirement after Panetti, yet the Florida Supreme Court failed to draw this distinction."
In Panetti, the Court overturned the death sentence of a schizophrenic who believed his punishment was retribution for his religious preaching -- not for murdering his in-laws.
Ferguson exhibits similar delusions about his execution, describing it as a "plot by the state of Florida to prevent him from ascending to his rightful throne" and that it stems from "a conspiracy of corrupt policemen" against him, as opposed to any crimes he committed. The state claims he's faking, but his schizophrenia is well-documented. He was first diagnosed in the '60s and hospitalized throughout the '70s. While he was hospitalized, several psychiatrists believed he was so dangerous he should remain in a facility indefinitely. Nevertheless he was discharged, and two years later he committed the murders for which he now sits on death row.
"There is no doubt the crimes were heinous, but to execute him would not be justice," said Florida ACLU spokesperson Baylor Johnson. "I think we are in a climate in Florida in which there is increased doubt about the legality, the accuracy, and the morality of our death penalty system. And situations like this one call into question the foundations of this broken system even more so."