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Too mentally ill for death? Florida executes man who lost Supreme Court appeal.

The case of John Errol Ferguson, executed Monday in Florida, raised the thorny question of how much mental illness is too much for someone facing execution. But the US Supreme Court declined to intervene.

By Staff writer / August 5, 2013

John Errol Ferguson. Ferguson, convicted of murdering eight people in Miami-Dade County in the late 1970s, was executed Monday night at the Florida State Prison, despite his lawyers' pleas that he was too mentally ill to be put to death.

Florida Department of Corrections/AP

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The state of Florida on Monday executed a longtime death row inmate who believed he was the “Prince of God” and whose lawyers had argued that he was too mentally ill to face capital punishment.

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John Errol Ferguson was executed by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison in Starke, where he had been on death row since his convictions on multiple murder charges in the late 1970s. He was pronounced dead at 6:17 p.m.

The action came after the US Supreme Court turned down a final appeal urging the justices to take up the Ferguson case to examine the difficult question of how much mental illness is too much mental illness for someone facing capital punishment.

Ferguson’s lawyer, Christopher Handman, said he was “gravely disappointed” that the high court had declined to hear the appeal. “Mr. Ferguson has been profoundly mentally ill for four decades…, but is now deemed suddenly and inexplicably cured,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Handman had argued that Ferguson’s case would offer the high court an opportunity to identify with greater precision the parameters judges are to use when deciding whether a condemned prisoner is mentally competent enough to face execution.

Because the death penalty is a form of state-authorized retribution for crime, it is essential that the condemned prisoner appreciate the significance of the punishment, legal experts say. Without that appreciation, the process would lack any retributive purpose and amount to a government killing without an accepted justification. That would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to legal experts.

John Ferguson has been on death row for 35 years after being convicted of involvement in two different multiple murders.

In 1977, Ferguson and two accomplices carried out a home-invasion robbery in Miami in which they bound eight people, tying their hands behind their backs, and made them kneel before shooting each in the head. Two of the victims survived and told police what happened.

Six months later, Ferguson came upon two 17-year-old high school students parked in a car by the side of the road in Hialeah, Fla. He shot the boy and chased the girl into nearby woods, where he raped her, stole her jewelry, and then forced her to kneel before shooting her in the head. Ferguson then returned to the car and shot the boy again, this time in the head.

Ferguson had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for decades. Mental-health experts documented a history of delusions and hallucinations. He was said to believe that his pending execution was a plot by the state of Florida to prevent him from ascending to sit on a heavenly throne at the right hand of God.

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