Tobias Winright writes "John Errol Ferguson, Serious Mental Illness, and Capital Punishment," for the Huffington Post. He is an Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Saint Louis University.
In "Florida Ignores the Supreme Court," (August 4, 2013) the New York Times editorial board calls on states to "adhere to the Constitution" when implementing the death penalty -- and the U.S. Supreme Court to act when states fail to do so. Specifically, the execution of John Errol Ferguson in Florida on August 5th raises questions about the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities and serious mental illness. In the view of the New York Times Editorial Board, Ferguson "is clearly ineligible for execution under the Constitution." Ferguson, who brutally murdered eight people and who has been on death row for over three decades, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He believed that he is the "Prince of God" and that he is being executed because he "can control the sun." His case brings to the fore a problem that the U.S. Supreme Court needs to address, namely, the execution of persons with severe mental illness -- an issue another New York Times editorial, "A Stay of Execution," did a better job of highlighting over a year ago.
In the 1986 Ford v. Wainwright ruling, it was held that the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits the execution of insane persons. In the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling, the execution of persons with intellectual disablilities was similarly deemed unconstitutional. The Court argued that "because of their reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses... [persons with intellectual disabilities] do not act with the same moral cuplability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct" (536 US 2002). According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), an intellectual disability originates before the age of eighteen and is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. The Atkins decision applies only to people with intellectual disabilities, not to convicted persons who suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of their offense.
On this point, in the recently published Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, editors Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David Matzko McCarthy write: "The Eighth Amendment has been interpreted as forbidding the executuion of persons who are unaware of their punishment and the reasons why they are being punished. Condemned death row inmates must have a rational understanding of what is occuring. Many mentally ill persons can meet this standard" (p. 207).
"Justice and mental illness," is the Everett Herald editorial.
The death penalty is as random and capricious as the violence it seeks to punish. No matter. In Washington, public sentiment remains pro-execution, and the political class barometers accordingly.
Death-penalty limits have tracked with evolving norms. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Roper v. Simmons that it was unconstitutional for states to impose the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18. The majority justices embraced an "evolving standards of decency" test established in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, which determined that executing the mentally retarded violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The latter decision on mental capacity was brought into focus Monday when Florida executed John Ferguson, a mentally ill killer (with the emphasis on capacity and not equating retardation with mental illness.) The National Association for Mental Illness filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on the Florida Supreme Court and circuit court's poor understanding of the science of mental illness. Ferguson, who had schizophrenia, was deemed fit by the circuit court because he understood the details of his trial and conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the stay of execution.
"The tragedies of John Ferguson's original crimes are compounded now by an additional tragedy -- one in which the legal system failed to recognize established medical understanding of serious mental illness," said Ron Honberg, NAMI's national director of policy and legal affairs.
"Ashton: EU opposed to Ferguson execution," by Karafillis Giannoulis for New Europe.
Earlier coverage of John Ferguson's case begins at the link.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton expressed her regret for John Ferguson execution in the US State of Florida on August 5.
John Ferguson convicted of murdering eight people in Miami-Dade County and a rape in the late 1970s and he was executed Monday night at the Florida State Prison, despite his lawyers' claim that he suffered from schizophrenia. Ferguson was in jail for more than three decades.
Today Ashton stated, “it was with deep regret that I learnt that Mr John Ferguson was executed on August 5 in the State of Florida. A plea by Mr Ferguson's lawyer calling for the execution to be commuted, mentioning a 40-year history of paranoid schizophrenia, was turned down. The European Union recognises the serious nature of the crime involved and expresses its sincere sympathy to the surviving family and friends of the victims. However, the EU opposes the use of capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances and calls for a global moratorium as a first step towards its universal abolition. With capital punishment, any miscarriage of justice, from which no legal system is immune, represents an irreversible loss of human life.”
According to the US Policymic website, despite previously ruling that the execution of the mentally ill is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court refused to intervene.