On Monday, Florida is scheduled to execute a paranoid schizophrenic man who believes he is the “Prince of God” and that his execution is preparing him for “ascension.” The U.S. Supreme Court has held on several occasions that the Constitution bars the death penalty for those who cannot comprehend their punishment or the concept of the death penalty, particularly those who are intellectually disabled or delusional. But the state of Florida has beat back several other challenges to John Errol Ferguson’s execution, and only a last-ditch U.S. Supreme Court stay can stop the planned procedure now.
As in another pending case that has several times almost ended in execution, the state disputes Ferguson’s incapacity to comprehend his execution, and suggests Ferguson “can and does” understand the penalty. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Florida Psychiatric Society, and the Florida Psychological Association forcefully argue otherwise in their amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court asking them to halt Ferguson’s execution. They explain that the Florida Supreme Court did not meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard from Panetti v. Quarterman, finding only that Ferguson was aware of his execution, but not that he could understand it. “Unless this Court grants the petition and reverses the decision below, Florida will continue to execute mentally ill individuals who do not understand the reason they are being put to death,” the brief warns.
After suffering a traumatic brain injury at age 21, Ferguson spent years in and out of mental hospitals. In spite of warnings from doctors that Ferguson should remain hospitalized because he was dangerously mentally ill, Ferguson was released. And in the next several years, he faced charges for several murders. No one disputes his conviction. But in articulating why it is cruel and unusual and “offends humanity” to execute those who cannot comprehend the punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained:
[T]oday, no less than before, we may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life… . Similarly, the natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity is still vivid today.
Florida’s commitment to execute Ferguson in spite of this concern reflects its general approach to capital punishment. In June, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a bill to speed up executions and limit the time for lawyers to prove their clients innocent, despite the state’s track record of sentencing people to death who were later exonerated.