Florida plans to execute John Ferguson on Monday even if he doesn't understand why.
Ferguson, 65, was convicted of killing eight people in South Florida in two separate incidents in the 1970s. He is also severely mentally ill, having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by multiple court-appointed doctors during his 35 years on death row. He describes himself as "the prince of God" and believes his coming execution is the result of a communist conspiracy.
And yet Ferguson was slated to die by lethal injection in October, but was issued a last-minute stay after his lawyers argued it was unconstitutional to execute a mentally ill man.
This week, Ferguson's attorneys again petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution, which Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, rescheduled for August 5. Scott spokesman John Tupps said the governor considers the signing of death warrants one of his "most solemn duties" and his top priority is that "justice prevails."
"The Florida court's theory in all of this is that it is one wily prisoner who has managed to fake everyone for 40 years," says Christopher Handman, Ferguson's lead attorney. "But he's got a 40-year history [of mental illness]. The state court has said it is genuine and he is not faking it. When you speak with him it is abundantly clear that he has a very tenuous grasp on reality."
In 1971, six years before Ferguson committed his first murder, a court-appointed doctor diagnosed Ferguson as paranoid schizophrenic, saying he had a "severely damaged ability to distinguish right from wrong." In the mid-80s, a decade after Ferguson's crimes, Florida's state prison system described him as incompetent to stand before a court, saying he did not know what a judge was and did not understand a lawyer's function. And in 2004, Ferguson's schizophrenia was deemed "incurable."
The constitutional implications of his case have drawn the attention of groups ranging from the American Bar Association, which takes no official position on the death penalty, to mental health groups across the country – all of which have called on the Supreme Court to halt Ferguson's execution.
"There's been a long standing principle in this country that it's unconstitutional to execute people who are insane," says Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one of the groups that petitioned the Supreme Court. "And several years ago, the Supreme Court said very clearly that in evaluating someone's competence to be executed, you really have to look beyond someone's intellectual state, and have to look at their rational state."
Honberg is referring to the 2007 Supreme Court case of Panetti v. Quarterman, which ruled that a person may not be executed if he or she does not rationally understand why he or she is being put to death.
Florida, however, has ruled that Ferguson can be executed even if he doesn't rationally understand his execution, because he is intellectually aware of it.
Honberg argues that the ruling is problematic because those who suffer from schizophrenia often have high IQs, obscuring the fact that they are severely delusional. If Ferguson is executed, he says, "it would reinforce the confusion about what mental illness is" and could have a domino effect on mental illness death row cases in other states.