Florida High Court Upholds Finding That Defendant is Sane Enough for Execution – Ferguson v. State

October 24, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

Insanity defenses in criminal prosecutions are notoriously hard to make successfully. Many juries believe people claiming insanity are just trying to avoid responsibility for their actions, which makes them hard to make in a jury trial. Furthermore, the law in many states, including Florida, does not just require that the defendant be diagnosed with mental illness; in many states, he or she must have been unable to tell right from wrong at the time of the crime. Thus, even someone with a diagnosis of mental illness may be sentenced in the same way as someone whose sanity is not in question. In Ferguson v. State, John Errol Ferguson appealed his execution order for killing eight people in Miami-Dade in the late 1970s, arguing that he is not “sane to be executed” under Florida Law. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed.

Ferguson was convicted of two murders totaling eight people. In 1977, he was one of three accomplices who killed six people at a Carol City home known as a place to buy marijuana; the accomplices wanted to rob the dealers. In 1978, Ferguson killed a teenaged couple on their way to meet friends for ice cream; he robbed both and raped the young woman. He was convicted in 1978 and sentenced to death. Ferguson has an active diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia; he believes he is a “Prince of God” and that God will return him to Earth after his death to foil a communist plot against the United States After Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed an execution warrant, Ferguson’s attorneys filed a claim arguing that he is incompetent to be executed because he is mentally ill. A panel of psychiatric experts examined him and found him sane to be executed. Ferguson then filed in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which granted several stays but ultimately found him sane to be executed.

In his appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, Ferguson argued that the lower court should not have found him sane to be executed, based on the finding that Ferguson’s delusions are “a manifestation of a normal Christian belief.” The trial court acknowledged that Ferguson had a diagnosed mental illness, but said it didn’t interfere with his understanding of his pending execution. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with that finding, though it said whether his delusions were representative of mainstream Christian thought was irrelevant. To be found insane to be executed, the defendant must be incapable of understanding the death penalty and why it was imposed, the court said. The circuit court had sufficient evidence to support its finding, the high court said, and a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling did not change the standard. It also rejected an argument that Ferguson did not get a full and fair hearing, though the high court did not explain its reasoning. Thus, it vacated the stay and permitted the execution to go forward.

This case has made the media in several places because it involves controversial death penalty issues, and because of the high-profile nature of the original murder crimes. As a criminal defense attorney, my top priority for anyone I’m defending against these serious charges is to avoid a death sentence in the first place, of course. But once someone is convicted and sentenced to death, there are numerous protections in place to ensure that he or she is not sentenced to death unfairly. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing a mentally ill person violates the Eighth Amendment, but as this case shows, courts require a showing of a particular situation in insanity cases, not just insanity itself. That’s why it’s vital for people accused of serious crimes to get experienced legal representation as quickly as possible.

If you or someone you love is accused of a serious crime in Florida, call Seltzer Law, P.A., to discuss your rights and your legal options. Lead attorney David Seltzer is a former prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s office and understands how prosecutors build their cases. To learn more or tell us about your situation, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online

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