By Judith Evans and Ron Honberg
After 35 years on Florida’s death row, John Ferguson is scheduled for execution at 6 p.m tonight. Proceeding with his execution would make a mockery of longstanding legal precedent that executing people who are “insane” is unconstitutional.
Both sides agree that Ferguson, who killed six people in Miami in 1977, has long suffered with a severe mental illness. Experts agree that he has schizophrenia, and that it long predated his crimes. The only disagreement is whether Ferguson is so ill that he does not understand the reason for his death sentence or the consequences of his execution.
The principle that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are “insane” is ingrained in American law. Historically, lawyers and judges struggled to determine what it means to be “insane” and therefore not competent to be executed. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved this issue in Panetti v. Quarterman. The court overturned a death sentence imposed on a man with schizophrenia who believed he was being executed to prevent him from preaching the word of God.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Panetti, emphasized that evaluating a person’s intellectual understanding of the meaning of execution and its consequences is not enough in cases involving individuals with severe mental illness. Rather, it is necessary also to consider whether a person’s understanding is influenced by delusions that guide the person’s understanding of the reason for the execution. “Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder,” Justice Kennedy stated, “may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose.”
The circumstances in the case of John Ferguson are very similar. Ferguson believes that he is the “Prince of God” and that he is being executed so that he can be resurrected and save America from a communist plot. He believes that he cannot stay killed and that his body will not remain in a grave. Like Scott Panetti, Ferguson is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and like Panetti, he is extremely delusional.
Schizophrenia is characterized by psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. Schizophrenia can be effectively treated; many people with this diagnosis live productive, independent lives. Most people with schizophrenia are not violent.
However, as with other chronic illnesses, the symptoms of schizophrenia generally worsen when appropriate treatment is not received. John Ferguson was first diagnosed during the 1960s. He spent much of the 1970s in Florida psychiatric hospitals but was discharged despite the concerns of several psychiatrists that he was potentially dangerous.
The Florida Supreme Court, in finding Ferguson competent to be executed, did not adequately consider Ferguson’s highly delusional and irrational state of mind. 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.
Supporters of the death penalty assert its impact in deterring or preventing others from acting in a similarly heinous manner. However, there is no evidence that executing someone as ill and delusional as John Ferguson would serve any preventive purpose. It has long been understood that revenge or retribution is not enough to justify executing individuals with diminished or impaired capacity and comprehension.
John Ferguson’s crimes were horrific, and he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. However, proceeding with his execution would be cruel and would serve no purpose other than revenge. Florida should not compound the tragedies in this case by executing a man as ill as John Ferguson.
Judith Evans is Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Florida. Ron Honberg is national director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.