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.