Friday, October 26, 2012

The Prince of God. Really?

By William Fisher

He is the “Prince of God” and will be seated at the “right-hand” of God after his death. His “documented history of paranoid schizophrenia” was “credible and compelling. “It is inconceivable” he would have received all those years of psychotropic medications and clinical treatment “were he not a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.”

As a teen, he was having “visual hallucinations.” One doctor said he “did not know right from wrong nor the nature and consequences of his acts.” A psychological diagnosis in 1975 warned that he “has a long-standing, severe illness which will most likely require long-term inpatient hospitalization” and that he was “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.”

Another brush with the law put him in danger of doing hard time. But, taking his psychiatric illness into account, he was released after a year. He soon murdered six people, execution style, during a brutal home invasion.

In 1977, he and two accomplices fatally shot six people at a Carol City, Florida, home, then the worst mass slaying in Miami-Dade County history. Even more shocking was his murder of a teenage couple who had left a church event in Hialeah in 1978 and never met up with friends they planned to meet for ice cream.

In the 1977 case, he pretended to be an electric utility worker to gain access to the Carol City house, which police said was a local hangout for marijuana dealers whom the bandits wanted to rob of drugs and cash. Former Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman said most of the victims were friends who happened to drop by the house while he and the other men were there. The victims were blindfolded and bound, but the encounter turned violent after a mask worn by one of Ferguson's gang fell off and his face was spotted by a victim.

He was convicted and sentenced to death and his appeal from that ruling also found him “fit for executiion” – able to understand what was happenening to him and why.

When a federal appeals court blocked the scheduled execution,

the U.S. Supreme Court quickly upheld the stay. For the past quarter of a century, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” to forbid the execution of an individual convicted of murder, if that person was mentally incompetent at the time of the scheduled execution. That declaration came first in 1986, in the case of Ford v. Wainwright.

At that time, the court said society would not tolerate “executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life.”

Ever since then, the justices and judges on lower courts have been attempting to further clarify that understanding.

The Appeals' Court decision came during a flurry of legal decisions over claims that 64-year-old convict suffers from mental illness so severe he cannot be executed. A paranoid schizophrenic with delusions he's the "prince of God," he had faced a planned lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Florida's death chamber.

The inmate, 64, had originally been scheduled to die by lethal injection this week at the Florida State Prison in Bradford. A new date and time must now be set.

On Wednesday, lawyer Christopher Handman said he was “disappointed” by the decision. He plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“No justice will be served by executing a very sick, elderly man,” Handman said.

In his order, Glant acknowledged that Ferguson has a history of schizophrenia but that he exists now trouble free in prison and “there is no evidence that he does not understand” why he is to be executed.

Christopher Handsman, Ferguson’s attorney, said, “It is impossible to fathom that the State can constitutionally put to death a man who thinks he is the Prince of God and who believes he has a destiny of being the right hand of God and returning to purify earth after the State tries to kill him. That simply is not a rational appreciation for what's about to befall him. We are confident that either the Florida Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court will prevent this unconstitutional execution from going forward."

If Ferguson dances past Death Row this time, lawyers say he will not become a patient in a state-operated psychiatric hospital. He may become part of the prison’s general population. Or end up in solitary, presumably to protect other inmates.

But that still leaves the central question moot. Should mentally ill people be executed? Death obviously ends any hope of “correction,” which is what prison systems mostly call themselves (but rarely do). It also costs taxpayers a lot of money.

Should they be sent to prison? If they are, there’s always the danger of violent harm to other inmates. If they are sent to solitary to avoid that, many prisoners have said they’d rather be dead.

Even in a state psychiatric hospital – if there was one -- there’s the possibility of danger to other patients.

But in prison, or in hospital, there is some chance of personal improvement, however small.
These are just a few of the complex options facing lawyers and judges and friends of the court as they ponder the fate of a sick old man.

But it occurs to me they may be asking the wrong question. They want to know if Ferguson understands and appreciates what’s happening to him NOW. But wouldn’t a better test be whether or not he understood what was happening when he became a mass murderer?