Last-minute stay halts execution of man with paranoid schizophrenia

At just before midnight October 23, the Supreme Court refused to overturn an appellate court’s last-minute decision to prevent the state of Florida from lethally injecting a man convicted of murdering eight people in the 1970s.

Lethal Injection
Lethal Injection

The defendant, Errol Ferguson, has paranoid schizophrenia.

Feruguson’s lawyers argue that the execution would run counter to the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision barring the exercise of the death penalty against people with mental illnesses, on the grounds that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Additionally, Ferguson’s lawyers argue the execution would violate a 2007 Supreme Court decision requiring death row inmates to have at least a “rational understanding” of their conduct.  The Florida Supreme Court, in determining that Ferguson could be executed, wrote in September 2012 that “Ferguson understands what is taking place and why,” according to an Associated Press article.

Ferguson’s lawyers starkly disagreed.

“In order for the state to execute him, Mr. Ferguson must have a rational understanding of the reason for, and effect of, his execution,” Chris Handman, an attorney for Ferguson, told the Associated Press. “A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.”

On October 20, a federal district court judge granted a stay to halt Ferguson’s execution. Two days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that the district court “abused its discretion,” paving the way for the execution to proceed.

Late in the evening of October 23, just prior to Ferguson’s scheduled 6 p.m. execution, the 11th Circuit reversed itself, placing the execution on hold. The Supreme Court, which had earlier declined to hear Ferguson’s case, declined to overturn the 11th Circuit’s decision.

The decision does not mean that Ferguson, who has been on death row for 34 years, may not still be executed. The state and Ferguson’s lawyers have until November 6 to file documents to the 11th Circuit for further proceedings, according to an article in Reuters.

The American Bar Association released a statement October 23 expressing concern regarding Ferguson’s mental capacity.

“The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severally mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated,” ABA President Laurel Bellows said in a statement.

Ferguson murdered six individuals as part of a drug-related home robbery in a north Miami suburb in July 1977, followed by two more teenagers the following years. The six victims, bound and blindfolded, were shot execution style, in what at the time was the largest mass slaying in Miami-Dade County history. The state of Florida executed both of Ferguson’s accomplices in the murders in the 1980s.