Convicted Killer Gets Stay of Execution
Convicted killer John Errol Ferguson received a stay of execution from the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta on October 23. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to set aside the stay just after midnight on October 24. Ferguson had been scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. on October 23. Despite the stay, prison officials in Florida put Ferguson in isolation before his scheduled execution date. He also received his requested last meal, which consisted of a country-fried chicken sandwich and sweet tea.
Ferguson, 64 years old, is a diagnosed schizophrenic. He was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder and other crimes in Hialeah and Carol City, Florida in the late 1970s.
Ferguson was convicted of six counts of first degree murder in relation to six deaths resulting from a July 1977 home invasion. He was also convicted of murder, robbery, and sexual battery arising from an attack on two teenagers in January 1978.
Records of Ferguson’s mental illness date back to the mid-1960s. In 1975, while in custody in a mental institution, he was diagnosed with serious mental illness and deemed dangerous. Ferguson’s release was not advised “under any circumstances.” Despite this warning, Ferguson was released. Within two years, Ferguson had killed eight people.
Ferguson has been in some type of institution for much of his adult life. Even Ferguson’s attorneys agree he should never be released from prison. But his attorneys argue that his mental illness should prevent him from being executed.
Ferguson has referred to himself as the “prince of god” and believes he is immortal. He believes he has been condemned to death because there is a conspiracy against him since he is the “prince of god.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that someone cannot be executed if the person is unable to understand the penalty. In Ferguson’s case, the State of Florida argued that the death penalty was constitutional because Ferguson was aware of his sentence. Ferguson’s lawyers argued that this standard was inadequate, and that the Constitution requires more than a mere awareness of the nature of the sentence. Their position was that Ferguson could not comprehend the reasons for his execution. Therefore, according to their argument, his execution under these circumstances would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional.
The state courts agreed with Florida’s position and ruled that the execution could proceed. Ferguson’s attorneys then petitioned a federal court in Florida for a stay, but were denied. They then successfully petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for a stay. The State of Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to set aside the stay, but it declined to get involved.
The Court of Appeals has set a briefing schedule in the matter. The last brief is due by November 6.
Ferguson’s case has attracted national attention. On the date of the stay, Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association, issued a statement expressing deep concern about Ferguson’s possible execution: “The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated.”