A federal judge granted a stay of execution this weekend for John Errol Ferguson, who was scheduled to be executed by the State of Florida on Tuesday. Ferguson, 64 years old, has been on death row for 34 years since being convicted of the first-degree murder of eight people including six who died in 1977 in Carol City, which at the time was the worst mass slaying in Miami-Dade County history. He also was convicted of killing a teenage couple from Hialeah in 1978.
Two accomplices in the Carol City killings also were convicted of murder. Both were executed in the 1980s.
Ferguson’s attorneys will argue his habeas corpus petition on Friday. They maintain Ferguson is insane and that the Constitution prohibits the state from executing him. The petition contends that the Florida Supreme Court, in determining that Ferguson could be executed, relied on an outdated definition of competency that conflicts with a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“In order for the state to execute him, Mr. Ferguson must have a rational understanding of the reason for, and effect of, his execution,” Ferguson’s attorney told the media. “A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.”
The Florida Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court ruling based on testimony by a panel of psychiatrists appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott that Ferguson is legally competent to be executed even though he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. The court wrote that “Ferguson understands what is taking place and why.”
Ferguson’s lawyers argue an inmate’s awareness of his execution as the state’s rationale for putting him to death is not enough. They believe the inmate must have a “rational understanding”, more than just mere awareness. The U.S. Supreme Court set the rational understanding standard in a 2007 case, but the Florida Supreme Court justices noted that their opinion specified that it wasn’t attempting to “set down a rule governing all competency determinations.”