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Not going gently into that good night

So this is what it boils down to for John Errol Ferguson:  the State of Florida can kill him if he understands why, but they can't if he is simply aware of the fact that they are.

Ferguson was 29 years old when he knocked on Margaret Wooden's door.  Ferguson and three other men, Marvin Francois, Beauford White, and Adolphus Archie, suspected that Wooden and Livingston Stocker, the owner of the home, were dealing drugs, and they intended to rob the pair.  Ferguson gained entrance by posing as a Florida Power & Light employee, needing to check the electrical outlets.  As soon as Wooden let him in, he drew a gun, bound and blindfolded her.  Francois and White came in, while Archie waited in the car.

The trio spent two hours ransacking the place, at which point Stocker and five friends returned to the home.  They were blindfolded, too, as was Michael Miller, Wooden's boyfriend, who arrived shortly thereafter.

A little while after that, things went to hell.  Francois' mask fell off, revealing his face to the six men in the living room.  He began shooting them, and Ferguson, who was keeping Miller and Wooden in a separate room, placed a pillow over Wooden's head, shot her, and then killed Miller.

Wooden and another man survived the slaughter, and would testify against Ferguson and his three confederates.  But not before Ferguson came across a teenage couple parked in a car near Hialeah six months later, and killed them both after raping the girl.  White and Francois were sentenced to death for their part in the drug house killings, and Ferguson hit the daily double:  death sentences for both that and the Hialeah killings.

All that happened in 1978.

 Ferguson was scheduled to die yesterday, but didn't.  It was a close call.  The Supreme Court denied a petition for cert and a stay a week ago, but on Saturday Federal District Judge Hurley granted a stay, saying the claims raised in Ferguson's habeas petition "merit full, reflective consideration."

Those issues revolve around Ferguson's sanity.  Not that that's a recent issue.  As you can see from this chart, Ferguson first reported having visual hallucinations in 1965.  To a prison psychologist, no less; Ferguson was 17 at the time.  It didn't get better, and in 1975 the doctor at a mental hospital summed up Ferguson's status in this fashion:  "He has a long-standing, severe illness which will most likely require long-term inpatient hospitalization. This man is dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances."

He was, and was responsible for killing eight people three years later.

Needless to say, his condition hasn't improved over the years.  He now claims to be the Prince of God, and that the Florida Department of Corrections has been preparing him for "ascension"; after he dies, he will be resurrected "at the right hand of God" to help fend off a Communist plot to take over the country.

That might have leap-frogged him to the head of the pack in the Republican presidential primaries last winter, and it was also enough to raise the question of whether he could be executed.  Here's where the law takes over.  Back in 1986, in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that someone couldn't be executed if he lacked the mental capacity to understand the fact of his impending execution, and the reason for it.  Ferguson's lawyer claimed that the Supreme Court's decision five years ago in Panetti v. Quarterman changed that, to require the court to determine whether the prisoner's mental capacity included a "rational understanding" of what was happening.  The Court, of course, didn't get around to defining exactly what that meant.  On October 12, the Florida Circuit Judge determined that Panetti didn't really add anything, and that Ferguson wasn't nuts enough to keep Florida from executing him.  In fact, the judge's opinion might find many people questioning their own sanity:

In some sense, Ferguson appears to have fit his grandiose delusion into a traditional religious worldview.  The record reflects that he meets with a prison chaplain whom he likes and feels respected by.  It also shows a person who in being executed by the State feels a connection to Jesus who was also executed by the State. There is no evidence in the record that Ferguson's belief as to his role in the world and what may happen to him in the afterlife is so significantly different from beliefs other Christians may hold so as to consider it a sign of insanity.

Maybe it's just me, but if I were writing an opinion upholding the right of the state to execute someone, I don't think I would have brought Jesus into it.

At any rate, Judge Hurley will now give Ferguson's claims the "full, reflective consideration" it warrants.  That should take a while.  Oh, and if you're wondering whatever happened to White and Francois, they were executed back in the 1980's.

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