At the time of this writing, the state of Florida is preparing to execute John Errol Ferguson by lethal injection. Ferguson is a convicted rapist and murderer. He was found guilty of the murder of eight individuals but may have killed as many as twelve during a spree between 1977 and 1978. Ferguson also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He first received this diagnosis from a court appointed psychiatrist in 1971. In fact, in the years leading up to his murder spree, numerous psychiatrists warned that Ferguson appeared homicidal and lacked understanding of right and wrong. More recently, experts have identified a deep fissure in his brain associated with schizophrenia. In the three decades that Ferguson has spent on death row, he has explained that he is an anointed “Prince of God.” Soon, Ferguson claims, he will ascend into heaven where he alone will be seated at the right hand of God. Then he will return to Earth, where he will save America from a communist plot. Under federal law, a truly mentally ill person cannot be executed. However, Judge David A. Glant of Florida’s eighth circuit, after listening to a panel of psychiatrists appointed by Governor Rick Scott, ruled that Ferguson is mentally competent to be executed. Glant argued that although Ferguson sincerely believes he is the Prince of God, this delusion is not substantially different from ordinary Christian beliefs. Aside from larger issues of justice and the death penalty at stake in this case, Glant’s controversial ruling raises serious questions about the distinctions between religious beliefs and insanity.
In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the United States Supreme Court read into the Constitution the common law rule that the insane may not be executed. To do so would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is banned under the Eighth Amendment.
The case concerned Alvin B. Ford, a Florida man whose situation was remarkably similar to Ferguson’s. While on death row for murder in 1982, Ford began to refer to himself as Pope John Paul III. Also like Ferguson, he claimed he was combating a vast conspiracy (Ford’s conspiracy theory concerned the Ku Klux Klan, not communists). Most importantly, Ford believed that the state could not execute him. The Supreme Court ruled that Ford could not be executed because Florida had no judicial safeguards with which to assess his sanity. However, Ford v. Wainwright allowed states to set their own standards as to whether a criminal is mentally competent to be executed.
In Provenzano v. State (2000), the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a convicted murderer with delusions may still be competent to execute, provided that he understands “the details of his trial; conviction; jury recommendation of death; whose murder he was sentenced to die for; and, that he will physically die once he is executed.” Christopher Handman, Ferguson’s lawyer, argued that Ferguson in no way met these requirements, explaining:
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.
Psychiatrists considered two issues in determining whether Ferguson’s messianic claims rendered him incompetent to execute. The first was whether he was malingering. Some psychiatrists suggested that he was; however, Judge Glant expressed in his opinion his belief that Ferguson’s delusion was genuine. The second issue concerned whether Ferguson understood that he was going to physically die. This proved to be more difficult to determine as Ferguson’s delusion appeared to change slightly each time a psychiatrist interviewed him. He apparently told one psychiatrist, “They do not have the power to kill me.” Another psychiatrist declared that Ferguson did not understand that he would be physically dead and buried. However, in other interviews Ferguson stated, “They’re going to kill me, just like they killed Jesus” and described how authorities would discover his empty tomb.
The question of whether Ferguson is mentally competent to execute appears to be hopelessly entangled with the theological claims of his delusion. If he believes he will ascend to sit at the right hand of God before the state can execute him, then he does not meet the standard outlined in Provenzano v. State. On the other hand, if he believes that, like Jesus, he will be executed, resurrected, and then ascend into heaven, he may be competent to execute under Florida law. In the later scenario, Ferguson does understand that he will be physically dead, if only temporarily. In contemplating this problem, it should be noted that Ferguson’s delusion does not have the consistency of a religious creed but rather shifts over time.
On October 16, after hearing two days’ worth of testimony from psychiatrists, Judge Glant declared in his opinion that Ferguson’s “‘Prince of God’ delusion, as well as his religious beliefs in general, shows a man who has a remarkably clear and relatively normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one.” In other words, Ferguson was competent to be executed because his strange beliefs qualified as a religious viewpoint rather than insanity. In response, religion scholars John Kelsay and David Levenson of Florida State University filed an amicus brief explaining that Ferguson’s delusion was not consistent with any known tradition of Christianity. Indeed, Ferguson’s messianic claims directly contradict Christian beliefs that Christ alone is the savior seated at the right hand of God. The decision was appealed and on October 20, Judge Daniel Hurley of the U.S. District Court ordered a stay of execution. But on October 23, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta lifted the stay by a decision of two to one. The 11th Circuit ruled that Hurley had abused his discretion in his October 20 decision. Ferguson was served his last meal prior to his 6 p.m. execution. However, another stay of execution was granted at the last minute, pending review by the United States Supreme Court.