The capricious nature of the death penalty was on full display on August 5, 2013, when the state of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson. More than three decades had come and gone since he’d received a death sentence for his role in what came to be known as the Carol City killings. It was the longest time lapse between death sentence and execution in United States history, due largely to the extraordinary degree of mental illness Ferguson had exhibited since well before his arrest for the murders.
But in the hundreds of news stories about the Ferguson case, there was barely a word about Beauford White, one of the other men who had been with Ferguson during the murders. Perhaps it was because White had been executed 26 years earlier, and his name had faded from memory. Or perhaps the public had forgotten, or never known, that the jury convicting Beauford White didn’t want him to be executed.
Jury verdicts are considered sacrosanct in American jurisprudence, particularly where the death penalty is concerned. Proponents of capital punishment have long argued that death sentences imposed by 12 jurors must be respected above any claims of bad lawyering, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial mistakes, or myriad other errors. Verdicts in capital cases are different than in all other cases in one crucial regard: the decision whether someone should live or die is a moral one, rather than factual or legal. Unlike a guilty verdict, which is reached through group deliberation, a life or death sentencing decision in a capital case is the product of individual reflection: each juror weighs the arguments for life imprisonment or execution on his or her own. The vast majority of states that have a death penalty require a unanimous vote by a jury before the death penalty is applied. But three states—Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—do it differently. This is how Beauford White came to be executed against his jury’s wishes.
As a literary device, it might work well to trace the parallel lives of John Ferguson and Beauford White. But the truth is that their lives ran at opposing angles, at least as far as the crime and its aftermath were concerned. So the night of the Carol City killings is as good a place as any to start their story. On July 27, 1977, Ferguson, identifying himself as “Lucky” and posing as an employee of Florida Power and Light, entered a house in a suburb of Miami. Shortly thereafter, he pulled a gun and demanded drugs, money, and jewelry from the female inhabitant. His co-conspirators, Beauford White and a man named Marvin Francois, joined Ferguson inside the house; all of the men were armed. Eventually, seven more people entered the home, including the woman's boyfriend and the owner of the house.
At this point, the prosecution and defense versions of the story veer away from each other. The state claimed that the killers wanted to eliminate the witnesses; lawyers for White argued that their client was along for the robbery, but the murders were part of a prearranged contract involving only Ferguson and Francois. In either case, two facts were undisputed: Eight people had been forced to lie on the floor, their hands tied behind their backs, and shot in the back of the head (two miraculously survived). And Ferguson and Francois had pulled the triggers. This was not a whodunit.
Everyone agreed that White had never attempted to kill anyone, or even intended that anyone should be killed—that he had, in fact, tried to talk Ferguson and Francois out of killing. While White took his share of the drugs, money, and jewelry, the testimony revealed that he appeared to be in shock after the murders, his eyes glazed over and his expression blank, “just sitting there like he seen a ghost.” And then there was this testimony of his refusal to cover up the crime, from the man who drove the killers to the crime scene:
Q: Somebody said something about getting rid of the .38, I think is what you said before we took the break.
A: Yes. Marvin [Francois] and Ferguson was talking about getting rid of the guns. They asked Beauford to get rid of it.
Q: What did Beauford say?
A: Beauford said, "I ain't getting rid of nothing."
So the picture was clearly drawn for the jury: Beauford White had not killed or attempted to kill—had, in fact, been shocked that killing had occurred—and was unwilling to join in the cover-up afterwards. When the jury sat down to decide if White was the worst of the worst, it wasn’t even close. All 12 voted that life imprisonment for him was more appropriate than execution.
John Ferguson did not fare nearly as well in front of his jury. Logic dictated that he was the leader—at the very least, he was the first to enter the house and pull a gun, the first to bind and blindfold a victim—and it was clear that Ferguson, along with Francois, had placed the eight victims on the floor and shot them in the back of their heads. While there was evidence that Ferguson had been mentally ill for some years before the date of the crime, he was clearly sane under any legal definition of insanity; and with six murders and two near misses on the docket, the jury had little choice. At the end of May 1978, less than a year after the slaughter in Carol City, the jury unanimously recommended that John Errol Ferguson be executed by the state of Florida.
It is reasonable to wonder how Beauford White, the man who received a unanimous jury vote for life, came to be executed in 1987, while John Ferguson managed to avoid a similar fate until 2013, even with a unanimous vote for death. There is no single explanation, as there rarely is when the death penalty is concerned, but a good starting point is the Florida sentencing law.
When the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the landmark 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, Florida became the first state to pass a new death penalty statute, six months later. Most of the country soon followed suit, but Florida’s law had a quirk that only Alabama and Delaware adopted: The jury’s vote regarding life or death was a recommendation, not a decision. The trial judge alone would determine the sentence.
Two years later, however, the Florida Supreme Court weighted the jury recommendation: For a judge to override a jury vote and change a life vote to a death verdict, “the facts suggesting a sentence of death should be so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.” Regardless of what the jurors thought, Beauford White’s fate rested with the trial judge, Richard S. Fuller.
Judge Fuller was a scoutmaster, a medic in a MASH unit, and a personal injury lawyer. Tall, distinguished, and with a memorable head of white hair, he is recalled by South Florida lawyers as the guy you might select if you were looking to cast a judge in a movie. One of those same lawyers remembered him in a legal brief as a man “who would send an individual to the electric chair.” He presided over the consecutive jury trials of the three defendants in the Carol City killings, and Beauford White found himself sandwiched between the two actual killers.