In yet another instance illustrating profound problems of agency and guilt when the death penalty and mental illness meet, a paranoid schizophrenic man is scheduled to be executed in Florida on Monday at 6 p.m.
The death row inmate, John Ferguson, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 for the murders of six people during a home robbery. As the Miami Herald noted, Ferguson was granted a stay of execution 10 months ago (since overturned) and throughout his appeals his "defense team has pointed to Ferguson’s longtime diagnoses as a paranoid schizophrenic and that he believes he is the 'Prince of God' to be seated at the 'right-hand' of God after his death."
Ferguson's case echoes the gruesome story of Texas death row inmate Andre Thomas, diagnosed with extreme schizophrenia, who gouged both his eyes out while in prison and remains, nonetheless, on death row. The cases illustrate the poverty of a death penalty justice system's ability to deal with mental illness. When capital punishment is at stake, the question (from a point of constitutional law) is whether the death row inmate is competent enough to comprehend his own capital punishment.
Thurgood Marshall’s 1986 majority SCOTUS opinion on the issue of executing the mentally ill set up the current legal standard: “We may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life,” wrote Justice Marshall. As I've noted on this issue in the past, many of us would also vehemently challenge the retributive value of the state executing persons with full comprehension of why they have been so singled out to face death, it seems clear that Marshall’s “comprehension” condition sets up profound problems when it comes to the mentally ill.
It is on Marshall's standard that Ferguson's defense lawyers will push for another last-minute stay of execution Monday. As his attorney told the Guardian, "John Ferguson is without a doubt mentally ill. He has a 40-year history of paranoid schizophrenia, we have more than 30 doctors diagnosing him as that over four decades. Yet Florida is close to eviscerating the U.S. supreme court law that makes him ineligible for execution."