Cracks in Legality

John E. Ferguson, a 64-year-old Florida death-row inmate, has been sleeping at death’s door for almost three decades. Earlier in his life, he brutally murdered at least eight innocent people, including a teenage girl whom he raped before fatally shooting her. According to Florida state law, Ferguson’s maniacal crimes call for the highest form of punishment: the death sentence. But no matter how heinous his crimes, they must be viewed in light of his mental illness. Ferguson believes he is “the Prince of God.”

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to extend the death penalty to a defendant lacking the “ability to comprehend the nature of the penalty.” A 2007 amendment to this ruling added clarity, stating that a “prisoner’s awareness of the state’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it.” Yet according to Florida law, the defendant need not understand the reason as to why the death penalty is being applied, but merely be aware of its connection to his crimes. If Ferguson is indeed executed, it will lead to crippling effects on the credibility of the American justice system and open up doors for further unjust persecutions.

On October 23, Ferguson’s last meal was being prepared as his lawyers made three frantic attempts to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking stays of execution. All three were denied that day. In a final attempt, a new appeal filed at the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta led to the granting of a stay of execution. As Ferguson awaits the court’s verdict, it is important to note the enormous moral implications of this case should the execution proceed as planned. The execution of a paranoid schizophrenic would set a dangerous precedent for killing of criminals who lack sanity.

Symptoms of Ferguson’s mental illness can be traced back to 1965, when he experienced visual hallucinations. The 1970s saw him in and out of mental hospitals for both severe psychosis and schizophrenia. He also claims to hear the voice of his dead father and is paranoid that people are constantly watching him and listening to him. At one point, he even claimed that cockroaches were crawling in his brain.

David A. Glant, the judge presiding over the case, stated that with "reasonable medical certainty…Mr. Ferguson has no genuine current mental illness and understands the nature and effect of the death penalty and why it was imposed on him.” His statement is based on a report generated by state-appointed psychiatrists, ruling out a forty-year history of mental illness while simultaneously admitting that the psychiatrists "did not complete a thorough and exhaustive interview of Ferguson at Florida state prison."

The American legal system should not allow room for such partial and superficial examinations of a defendant’s mental health. If justice is to be preserved, then honesty and validity must be upheld. It is not enough that Glant believes Ferguson to be sane with “reasonable” medical certainty. It does not permit the execution of a delusional man. Laurel G. Bellows, the president of the American Bar Association, supported the need for a reassessment of the case in order to uphold such rights when she released a statement expressing her concern: "The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than forty years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated."

Executing an insane man would raise a question regarding the nature of morality: Are we to hold a person who lacks the mental faculty of reason responsible for any crimes committed as a result of his irrationality? When laws are created, an assumption is made that a person has the ability to differentiate between right and wrong, to choose to follow a law or to knowingly break it. Ferguson clearly does not possess the right mental capacities to form such a decision and so cannot be held as morally responsible for his actions.

Treating Ferguson as legally insane would not excuse his crimes. Ferguson should receive a sentence that takes into account both his crimes and his mental health. If not, the Ferguson case will bear severe repercussions that will affect our conceptions of morality and criminal justice. As Ben Lewis, one of his defense lawyers, explains, “This is a guy with long-standing mental health issues that stretch over four decades, with 30 different doctors having diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, including Florida state and court-appointed doctors,” yet the question remains, “is [he] sane enough to be executed?"

Casimira S. Karunaratne ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Lowell House.