John Ferguson, a 64-year-old man who has been on Florida’s Death Row for 34 years, is scheduled to be executed tonight at 6 p.m. after an appeals court lifted a last-minute stay that a lower court judge imposed because of Ferguson’s mental illness.
Ferguson’s attorneys have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court for a last-ditch effort to stop the execution, but there’s no word yet on whether the highest court will act.
Officials at the prison in Starke, Florida, are preparing for the execution, including fixing Ferguson’s last meal, Misty Cash with the Florida Department of Corrections told CNN.
While Ferguson was convicted of killing eight people in South Florida in 1977 and 1978, including a teenage couple, he was also suspected of killing yet another couple was never convicted. Prosecutors concede that Ferguson is mentally ill, but they contend that he still surpasses the bar set by the state for awareness of his pending execution.
The execution hinges on the question of which standard should be applied in the case. A panel of psychiatrists appointed by Gov. Rick Scott found that Ferguson was legally competent to be executed, even though he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, because “Ferguson understands what is taking place and why,” the Florida Supreme Court ruled this month.
According to Ferguson’s lawyers, an inmate’s awareness of his execution as the state’s rationale for putting him to death is not enough. They say the inmate must have a “rational understanding,” a higher standard than mere awareness, as set by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 case.
But the Florida justices point out the Supreme Court’s opinion specified that it wasn’t attempting to “set down a rule governing all competency determinations.”
Chris Handman, one of Ferguson’s lawyers, said in a statement that he’s disappointed a divided panel vacated the stay and is “hopeful that the Supreme Court will reverse this decision because there is no evidence that Mr. Ferguson has a rational understanding of the reason for, and effect of, his execution.”
Ferguson’s lawyers say he lacks rational understanding because he suffers from delusions that he’s the “prince of God” and that God is preparing him to return to Earth after his execution and save the United States from a communist plot.
The gun used by Ferguson in the murder of the teenagers was also traced to the murder of an elderly couple killed outside a Miami motel. Ferguson was never charged with that crime because there was no other corroborating evidence.
Ferguson’s two accomplices in the Carol City slayings, Beauford White and Marvin Francois, were found guilty in separate murder trials and were both executed in the 1980s.