The Cruel And Pointless Effort To Execute John Ferguson

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Despite several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and even though the Supreme Court has declared executing the severely mentally ill unconstitutional, John Ferguson is scheduled to be executed in Florida on August 5th (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

Despite several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia and even though the Supreme Court has declared executing the severely mentally ill unconstitutional, John Ferguson is scheduled to be executed in Florida on August 5th (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers).

John Ferguson, a 65-year-old man with a long history of mental illness, including several diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia by prison doctors, and who refers to himself as the “Prince of God,” is set to be executed in Florida on August 5th. His crimes were horrific, no question. Ferguson was convicted of a total of eight murders committed near Miami, earning him a total of eight death sentences.

But executing the severely mentally ill, or “the insane,” has been unconstitutional since 1986 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled so in Ford v. Wainwright (a Florida case, as it turns out). In its decision, the Court, led by Thurgood Marshall, reasoned that it is cruel and pointless to put prisoners to death who don’t understand why (or in some cases even that) they are being killed.

An unscientific conception of mental illness in the courts is allowing unconstitutional executions to continue.

It is because of this question of constitutionality that the American Bar Association has submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Ferguson, calling on the Supreme Court to hear his case. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), together with 3 Florida mental health organizations, has also submitted a brief in support Ferguson, arguing that an “unscientific conception of mental illness” in the courts is allowing unconstitutional executions to continue.

In 2006, Amnesty International documented at least 100 individuals in the U.S. who were executed despite clear evidence of serious mental illness. Many were not competent enough to even stand trial, let alone understand why they were being put to death. More have been executed in the 7 years since that report was released.

The Supreme Court has a chance to use John Ferguson’s case to strengthen its 27-year-old ban on executing the “insane.” They should stay the execution and seize this opportunity.

For its part, the state of Florida should just stop trying to kill a man who is severely mentally ill.

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4 thoughts on “The Cruel And Pointless Effort To Execute John Ferguson

  1. Please note, one of the reasons for the decline in in-patient treatment for schizophrenia is the federally sanctioned discrimination against the poor who have a serious mental illness and who need longer stays in a rehabiltative setting, in order to get their symptoms under control before being released into the community. The Medicaid Institutes for Mental Diseases (IMD) Exclusion is an archaic law, conceived out of the ideology in the 60's that everyone can recover with medications….and do it in the community.

    The Community Mental Health Act of 1964 envisioned community hospitals, to replace the large, gothic hospitals miles from nowhere…similar to the cardiac wings, the cancer wings, etc., that we see today. These never materialized. And the Medicaid IMD Exclusion provided the financial incentives for the states to dump patients into a community setting that were not prepared for the influx of people who had serious mental illness – about half of whom do not even understand they are sick.

    The medical profession, the medical health delivery "system" has failed people who have the most serious forms of mental illness and who lack insight that they are sick. When one of them acts on a delusion and kills people, they are called monsters, and evil…and some finally get the treatment they needed in prison – and realize what they have done – and it horrifies them. That is why Jared Loughner plead guilty to the shooting spree that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords permanently impaired and many others died and or were wounded. His parents tried to get hm into treatment, but the system failed them.

    I am not surprised that Florida wants to execute this man. I just hope the federal government steps in and does the right thing.

  2. I don't know if this is the right place to say this. But I would just like to add, most people with mental illness (including schizophrenics–who typically get the most reactions from people), are NON-VIOLENT. Just do a search on mental illness, schizophrenia and "stigma" and you will see what I mean. So treating mental illness, like it is almost another "mitigating factor" for execution, is doubly injust.