The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) calls for the State of Florida to halt the scheduled execution of John Errol Ferguson and commute his death sentences to life in prison. Ferguson is a severely mentally ill African American man who has spent the last 34 years on death row and whose execution is set for Thursday, October 18, unless the courts intervene.
“In no way, shape or form is John Ferguson competent to be executed,” said Anne O’Berry, NLG Southern Regional Vice President, who assisted with Mr. Ferguson’s representation in the 1990s and witnessed firsthand what happened when prison officials abruptly took him off anti-psychotic medications. “When I went to see John in the prison hospital, I was shocked at what I saw,” she noted. “He was catatonic. He could not move, he could not speak, and he had stopped eating because he thought they were poisoning his food. They inserted a feeding tube into his arm and transferred him to Chattahoochee State Hospital, where he was promptly put back on his medications and was again able to speak, move and eat. He stayed at Chattahoochee for quite a while but ultimately was transferred back to death row. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the sight of him lying there, catatonic.”
The execution of Ferguson would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and would also violate international conventions on human rights to which the United States is a party, including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Ferguson was diagnosed with mental illness in 1965 and was committed to state hospitals in the 1970s after he was arrested on felony charges and suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was found to be unable to distinguish right from wrong. In 1975, a doctor warned that Ferguson posed a danger to himself and others and “cannot be released under any circumstances.” Yet Ferguson was released from state custody within a year, and in 1978, was found guilty of the murders for which he is sentenced to die.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright that the 8th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits a state from executing a mentally incompetent inmate. Despite this, Governor Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant, and after a 90-minute interview, a three-member panel appointed by the Governor deemed him competent to be executed.
Last Friday, after a two-day hearing on Ferguson’s competency, a circuit court judge rejected the State’s contention that Ferguson is feigning mental illness, finding that Ferguson believes he is the “Prince of God,” that the Department of Corrections is preparing him for “ascension,” and that he will be resurrected like Jesus Christ.
Yet despite these findings, and contrary to recent Supreme Court precedent holding that an inmate’s awareness of the State’s rationale for execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it, the judge ruled John Ferguson competent to be executed.
Founded in 1937, the National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar association. Its headquarters are in New York City and it has members in every state.
An NLG resolution urging a stay of execution is available at https://www.nlg.org/file/816.