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.

Florida Department of Corrections/AP
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.

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.

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.

“Ferguson believes that he can’t be killed, that the state does not have the special powers that he has and therefore cannot execute him,” Handman wrote in his brief to the high court. The lawyer quoted Ferguson as once saying, “just like Jesus, you’ll come and look [in my grave] and you won’t find me there.”

The defense lawyer cited Ferguson’s belief in life after death as proof of his client’s inability to “rationally and meaningfully comprehend the consequences of execution.”

A panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected the argument.

“Ferguson has a mental illness but he does understand that he is going to die by execution, and he understands that it is going to happen because he committed eight murders,” wrote Judge Edward Carnes for the three-judge panel.

“Ferguson also believes, as tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of other people do, that there is life after death,” Judge Carnes said. “Countless people also believe, as he does, that they are among God’s chosen people. But Ferguson’s religious belief is more grandiose than that because he believes that he is the Prince of God.”

The central issue in Ferguson’s emergency appeal to the US Supreme Court was whether the Florida Supreme Court applied the correct judicial test when it earlier decided that Ferguson was fit enough to be executed.

The relevant standard was set in a 2007 US Supreme Court decision. The high court declared that it wasn’t enough that a condemned inmate was “aware” that he was about to be executed. Instead, the justices said an inmate must possess a “rational understanding” of the reasons for his pending execution.

Defense attorney Handman said that the Florida high court used the wrong test in the Ferguson case and that the federal appeals court failed to hold the state court accountable for the error.

“That is not deference; it is an abdication,” he said.

The American Bar Association filed a friend of the court brief urging the justices to take up the case. The ABA brief said that lower courts have applied conflicting standards in similar cases and that clarification is sorely needed.

A group of mental-health organizations also filed a friend of the court brief. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Florida Psychological Association, and the Florida Psychiatric Society said the Florida courts had applied an unconstitutional standard in the Ferguson case.  

“A prisoner with such a disorder can be highly intelligent and rational in certain respects yet entirely fail to grasp the true reason for his execution. Without this 'rational understanding,' his execution is senseless and unconstitutional,” the brief said.

“Florida’s competency standard fails to protect against such senseless and unconstitutional executions,” the brief said. “It allows the execution of prisoners who do not truly understand why they are being put to death.”

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