Florida Tries to Execute the 'Prince of God'

State officials say John Ferguson is faking his mental illness. The law says the state can't execute an incompetent man. Something's gotta give.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Florida Governor Rick Scott wanted, finally, to get rid of John Ferguson, but he wanted to appear fair in doing so. The convicted multiple murderer had been on the Sunshine State's death row for decades -- for 34 years, for a generation -- but questions lingered about his mental competency. As far back as 1971, in fact, six years before Ferguson first killed, the state's own psychiatrists had diagnosed him as suffering from "a major mental disorder" that rendered him "psychotic and incompetent." Forty years later, he was hardly better. 

So after Governor Scott set Ferguson's execution date for October 16th, and defense attorneys duly alerted officials to their client's diminished mental state, the governor appointed three psychiatrists to a "commission" to evaluate Ferguson, to determine whether he was sane enough to be lawfully executed by the state. The psychiatrists, who had never before seen or treated Ferguson, were ordered to move quickly -- to examine the prisoner on October 1st and issue their report on October 2nd. Here's how the defense describes what happened next:

The Commission did even better: It managed to send a terse one-and-a-half page report to the Governor by 4:00 p.m. the same day it evaluated Ferguson. Of course, that sort of efficiency was accomplished thanks only to some short cuts. For instance, even though Ferguson's mental-health records span thousands of pages of paper, the Commission evaluated only a subset of them -- hand-picked by the State's lawyers. Notably absent from those records were any of the pre-1978 diagnoses from State psychiatrists consistently documenting Ferguson's paralyzing psychosis.

That said, the Commission still had to make their way through two file boxes of medical records -- a task it knocked off with stunning efficiency, taking a mere 90 minutes to complete. Needless to say, that feat came with its own cut corners. As the Commission's Chair later conceded on cross-examination, he did not review all of the records provided.

The Commission took the same fleet approach to examining Ferguson, meeting with him for just under 90 minutes. During that interview, Ferguson demonstrated no rational understanding of why the State was seeking to kill him or what would happen to him. For instance, he told the Commission -- consistent with what he has told psychiatrists for 40 years--that he is the Prince of God. He also told them that he would "come back to life," that his body would not remain in his grave, and that he was destined to be the "only one" at the right hand of God.

Ferguson also reported to the Commission a long history of other delusions and hallucinations -- including current delusions and hallucinations. Among them, Ferguson explained that he heard God whisper to him (through his set of "inner ears") plans for fulfilling his destiny as the Prince of God; that he communicated with his long-dead father, who has vowed to protect him from death or harm; that he believes the State lacks the power to kill him; that he sees "shadow people" who watch him; that he is convinced there are communist plots that he will "drive away" after he assumes his seat at the right hand of God. [Citations omitted by me.]

You likely already know what happened next. What happened next is what frequently happens in these capital cases -- when state officials, acting in frustration and anger, decide they have offered all of the due process and equal protection protections they want to offer a condemned man. When the search for the truth of a matter -- like whether a man who believes he is the Prince of God is sane enough to be executed -- becomes a burden, the state no longer wishes to bear honorably. The defense again picks up the story:

The Commission, however, saw nothing amiss. To be sure, it conceded in the final paragraph of its report that Ferguson had indeed exhibited psychotic symptoms. But the Commission dismissed them out of hand. In its view, Ferguson "feign[ed] religious delusion thinking" and "feigned other psychotic symptoms." The Commission, however, never administered a single test for feigning--even though some of the Commissioners had brought testing equipment with them for precisely that purpose.

Having written off all of Ferguson's psychoses as "feigned," the Commission concluded that Ferguson "(1) has no genuine current mental illness; and (2) understands the nature and effect of the death penalty and why it was imposed on him." The Commission's members would later concede that they reached this conclusion after a "short discussion" immediately following the interview, [a discussion] which lasted approximately five to ten minutes. As the Circuit Court would later find, the Commission "did not complete a thorough and exhaustive interview of Ferguson." (citations omitted by me).

The Florida Courts: Sane Enough to Be Executed

That's the same "circuit court," by the way, that quickly authorized Florida to proceed with the Ferguson execution -- despite its concern over the commission's work, and despite finding that Ferguson was a "paranoid schizophrenic" who harbored "genuine" delusions. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court agreed, concluding that despite Ferguson's severe mental illness, he was sane enough to be executed because he was aware of the punishment he was about to receive and why he was about to receive it.

"Ferguson's only comments in the record regarding his burial -- comments made directly to the Commission -- are that after his body is buried 'just like Jesus, you'll come and look and you won't find me there.'"

Ferguson had passed the last test of his life, the state supreme court ruled, because he was "aware that he has never before had a death warrant signed on his behalf" and "that he would be the first person to receive Florida's current protocol of medications for lethal injections." So a new execution date was set for October 23rd and the days leading up to it were marked by a flurry of court filings and responses, all surrounding the extent of Ferguson's competency, the applicable legal standard for evaluating it, and the degree of deference due to Florida's courts.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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