Scott Lemieux writes, "SCOTUS's Meaningless Death Penalty Rules," for the American Prospect. He's an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.
Monday evening, the state of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson. This was not an act of injustice because Ferguson was innocent—he brutally killed eight people. It was an act of injustice because Ferguson was mentally ill. The Eighth Amendment forbids his execution.
In 2008, the Supreme Court held that a person cannot be executed if he or she is insane at the time of his or her execution. To the extent that the term has meaning, it's hard to imagine that it doesn't apply to Ferguson, who experts have testified has a "genuine belief" that he is the "prince of God" and has the power to control the sun.
This is illustrative of the larger problem with the death penalty: The American criminal-justice system does not appear capable of rationally designating only those most clearly culpable of heinous crimes for execution. It remains true, in the memorable phrase of Justice Potter Stewart, that capital punishment as applied by the states is "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." Some people are executed while others found guilty of more horrible crimes in the same state are not, and some people who are executed are probably not guilty of anything. The Supreme Court's occasional gestures towards making the death penalty less arbitrary have done almost nothing to alter this fact.
Earlier coverage of John Ferguson's case begins at the link.