The Ferguson Case: When the Law Hasn't Kept Up With Science


If the State of Florida has its way, John Ferguson, who has been on death row for 34 years, will be executed today at 6 p.m.

If the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, he won't.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and three state mental health organizations have filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, arguing that the Florida Supreme Court violated constitutional principles in upholding Ferguson's death sentence.

Ferguson has long lived with paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness often marked by psychosis, involving hallucinations and delusions. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Panetti v. Quarterman that an individual must have a rational understanding of why he is being put to death and the finality of the death penalty.

However, the Florida Supreme Court failed to honor that rule under the Eighth Amendment—instead applying a standard of mere factual awareness.

It's not a trivial distinction.

In Ferguson's case, he believes that he is the “Prince of God,” cannot be killed, and that his body will not remain in a grave. He believes he will rise from the dead and fight alongside Jesus Christ to save America from a communist plot. Over the course of 40 years, multiple state doctors in state institutions diagnosed his mental illness.

Ferguson was convicted of killing eight people. The constitutional principle does not excuse his horrendous crimes, but it does point to life without parole as the most appropriate sentence.

What is relevant also is that the criminal justice system and mental health care system were in part responsible for the tragic loss of lives. Before the murders, Ferguson had been institutionalized and doctors recommended that he not be released because his illness made him dangerous. He was released anyway.

The Florida Supreme Court's decision reflects a broader problem.

Legal standards generally do not keep pace with scientific and medical knowledge and legal definitions bear little resemblance to the contours of mental illness. Diagnoses may be relevant, but are not determinative and often are distorted.

In Ferguson's case, a fundamental misunderstanding of psychotic disorders has been evident.

Although a person living with schizophrenia may be aware of some aspects of punishment, their thought processes may still be strange and not based on logic or reality.

One example—outside the arena of criminal justice—is mathematician John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for developing game theory at the same time that he believed he was being recruited by aliens to save the world. Psychosis also can include grandiose and religious delusions hat affect behavior.

The divergence between legal and medical proceedings is also evident in earlier stages of capital crimes.

Diagnoses and symptoms again may be relevant, but are not determinative.

“Competency” to stand trial hinges on the legal standard of whether or not a person is able to understand charges against them and assist in their defense. “Not guilty by reason of insanity”—which is rarely raised and rarely succeeds—hinges on the ability to recognize right from wrong, even if a person's sense of “right” is irrationally tied to an imperative belief that doing right means doing wrong.

In 2009, NAMI estimated that over 100 people living with mental illness have been put to death in the United States. Hundreds more, like Ferguson, have awaited execution.

In a special report, Double Tragedies , published jointly with Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, NAMI called the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for people with severe mental disorders and “a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contribute or directly lead to tragic violence.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will not need to consider these broader concerns in Ferguson's case, but it will need to uphold a constitutional principle of rational understanding—as a bulwark against irrationality.

The irrationality involves not just a person living with mental illness who faces execution, but also, unscientific notions of the state. Simple human justice demands no less.

Ron Honberg is Director of Policy & Legal Affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He welcomes readers' comments.

Editors Note: John Ferguson was executed by lethal injection on August 5th in Florida. He was pronounced dead at 6:17 pm.

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