Schizophrenic Man Set to Be Executed in Florida after 35 Years on Death Row

Decades of legal wrangling, psychoanalysis and petitioning has left a convicted murderer condemned to die, despite being determined to be mentally ill.

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AP / Florida Department of Corrections
AP / Florida Department of Corrections

John Errol Ferguson

A Florida man who has been on death row for 35 years is scheduled to die at 6pm Eastern Time after a federal appeals court lifted his stay of execution on Monday. The move comes just three days after the man, who is afflicted with schizophrenia, was given a reprieve by a U.S. District Judge based on his lawyers’ argument that he is not competent to be executed.

Barring any new action from the Florida Supreme Court, John Errol Ferguson, 64, will be put to death at Florida State Prison for killing six people in a 1977 Carol City, Fla., home invasion, and the murders of two teenagers in Hileah, Fla., in 1978, according to prison records. He was convicted in 1978 along with two accomplices, both of whom were executed in the 1980s.

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In the ten years after his conviction, at least three prison psychiatrists all examined Ferguson and determined that he suffered from schizophrenia. It was also determined that during an earlier period of either incarceration or living in a state mental facility, beginning in 1971, he was diagnosed as psychotic. According to a court briefing, during periods ranging from 1971 to 1988, he had been administered psychotropic medications for the treatment of his illness. Despite warnings from doctors who had demonstrated how sick he was, he was released from state custody in 1976 and committed the killings the next year.

Ferguson has described himself as the “Prince of God,” and saw himself on a mission to fight communists. He has had mental issues dating back to 1965, when he first reported having hallucinations. This began a long process of monitoring, diagnoses and treatment that stretched long past the murders he was convicted of committing. A series of physicians and psychologists intermittently determined as competent or incompetent for post-conviction proceedings. The process of analyzing him over the course of decades showed that he was severely mentally ill, and gave his attorneys a basis to argue that he should not be executed.

“It is undisputed that Mr. Ferguson is a paranoid schizophrenic,” his lawyer Christopher Handman said in a statement after the Florida Supreme Court determined that he was competent to be executed.

“Over nearly 50 years, multiple state doctors have diagnosed him as profoundly mentally ill and suffering from hallucinations and delusions. No justice will be served by executing a very sick, elderly man.”

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The Florida Supreme Court and lower district court went through a volley of orders staying and lifting stays of execution through the month of October — most recently last Saturday, when U.S. District Judge Daniel T. K. Hurley said that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave a different definition of competency than the Florida Supreme Court justices were using and granted a stay.

But late Monday evening an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel of judges in Atlanta, voting 2-1, decided to lift the stay despite the granting of a hearing on Ferguson’s case scheduled for Friday. Handman is holding out hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will step in and has filed a petition for the judges to do so.

“We think there are substantial constitutional questions here that will merit the Supreme Court of the United States to honor the stay of execution,” he told CNN.