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.
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.