John Errol Ferguson, Serious Mental Illness, and Capital Punishment

In "Florida Ignores the Supreme Court," (August 4, 2013) the New York Times editorial board calls on states to "adhere to the Constitution" when implementing the death penalty -- and the U.S. Supreme Court to act when states fail to do so. Specifically, the execution of John Errol Ferguson in Florida on August 5th raises questions about the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities and serious mental illness. In the view of the New York Times Editorial Board, Ferguson "is clearly ineligible for execution under the Constitution." Ferguson, who brutally murdered eight people and who has been on death row for over three decades, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He believed that he is the "Prince of God" and that he is being executed because he "can control the sun." His case brings to the fore a problem that the U.S. Supreme Court needs to address, namely, the execution of persons with severe mental illness -- an issue another New York Times editorial, "A Stay of Execution," did a better job of highlighting over a year ago.

In the 1986 Ford v. Wainwright ruling, it was held that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits the execution of insane persons. In the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling, the execution of persons with intellectual disablilities was similarly deemed unconstitutional. The Court argued that "because of their reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses... [persons with intellectual disabilities] do not act with the same moral cuplability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct" (536 US 2002). According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), an intellectual disability originates before the age of eighteen and is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. The Atkins decision applies only to people with intellectual disabilities, not to convicted persons who suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of their offense.

On this point, in the recently published Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, editors Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David Matzko McCarthy write: "The Eighth Amendment has been interpreted as forbidding the executuion of persons who are unaware of their punishment and the reasons why they are being punished. Condemned death row inmates must have a rational understanding of what is occuring. Many mentally ill persons can meet this standard" (p. 207).

Ferguson's last words were unintelligible to witnesses of his execution. Given the confusion that exists currently about the terms "insanity," "intellectual disability," and "serious mental illness," states like Florida should not execute persons like Ferguson until there are clarity and consensus here. Florida has successfully managed to protect its citizens from Ferguson for over three decades; executing him was not necessary.

As a former citizen and correctional officer in the state of Florida, I encountered a number of inmates with serious mental illness who allegedly committed horrific crimes. While I am opposed to capital punishment for anyone, I am especially opposed to it in cases where there is serious doubt about the perpetrator's full culpability due to severe mental illness at the time of his or her offense.