The Execution of John Errol Ferguson: Just “Normal Christian” Crazy (Update x6)

It may be a matter of personal bias, but it never struck me that people who hold mainstream Christian beliefs were the equivalent of a psychotic mass murderer. Then again, I’m not Judge David Glant in Florida, where insanity has apparently been redefined so that a 64-year-old convicted murderer, John Ferguson, with a history of mental illness /files/66432-58232/doc10122012103557.pdf”>his decision, calls the evidence of his insanity “credible and compelling.”  In Florida, this apparently not only means he’s sane enough to execute, but pretty much a “normal Christian.”

Regardless of his long history of mental illness, there is no evidence that he does not understand what is taking place and why it is taking place. Ferguson’s “Prince of God” delusion, as well as his religious beliefs in general, shows a man who has a remarkably clear and relatively normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one… In some sense, Ferguson appears to have fit his grandiose delusion into a traditional religious worldview.

This raises a rather disturbing question, whether a “traditional religious worldview” causes a man to do the horrible things Ferguson did, as Fred Grimm describes in the Miami Herald.

On July 27, 1977, Ferguson was one of three masked gunmen who burst into a Carol City home looking for drugs. Ferguson and an accomplice forced six of the occupants to lay face-down on the floor and then shot them, one by one, in the back of the head. Six months later in Hialeah, Ferguson surprised a teenaged couple sitting in their car. He killed them both, after brutally raping the girl.

This is outrageous conduct, but it’s compounded by the fact that Ferguson, who was committed to a mental hospital, was released.

And finally a diagnosis in 1975 came with a warning that reads, in retrospect, like prophecy. “He has a long-standing, severe illness which will most likely require long-term inpatient hospitalization. This man is dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.”

Yet, in an act of bureaucratic insanity, less than a year later Ferguson was released from state custody, this diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was delusional and impulsive and explosive and aggressive and dangerous.

Apparently, in Florida, “cannot be released under any circumstances” means cut him loose within a year. They really need their own dictionary down there, as those words would suggest to most people that this is a terribly sick man who could murder a lot of people if let go. And he did.

Aside: In a rational world, who bears greater culpability for the murderous acts of utterly insane and dangerous man: the crazy guy or the government official who, knowing he was nuts, released him to prey on the public?

But as mentally ill as John Ferguson may have been for those five decades, believing that he was the “Prince of God” whose mission it was to stop a communist plot to take over the country when he is resurrected “at the right hand of God” to drive the commies away, he doesn’t pass the crazy test in Florida because, as Judge Glant held, this is what relatively normal Christians believe.  It has to be true, because a judge says so. 

If I was a relatively normal Christian, I might find this more than a bit insulting.  As a lawyer, it’s just mind-boggling, unless he was just looking for an excuse to execute Ferguson anyway.

Of course, this being a civilized nation, we don’t execute anyone who doesn’t know he’s about to be zapped from existence. But the courts have decided that somewhere in that muddled and messianic mind of John Errol Ferguson, he’s aware, enough anyway, of what awaits him.

Notions of “normal Christian belief” must be slightly different up there in Bradford County. Either that or when the convict before the court has eight murders on his rap sheet, a judge will accept even the most meager excuse to dispatch him to oblivion. Yet, Judge Glant didn’t really need to stray outside the parameters of the law, which holds such a narrow definition of insanity that a history of outrageous craziness hardly matters.

According to the state’s doctors, Ferguson understood that he was going to be executed, even if his grasp with limited to the twisted paradigm that exists somewhere within the dark recesses of a psychotic mind. As his pro bono lawyer, Chris Handman explained,

there’s a difference between a “factual awareness” by Ferguson that he’s about to be put to death and “a rational appreciation of the death penalty.” But he has yet to find a court willing to acknowledge that difference. He’ll try the Florida Supreme Court this week. But time is running out.

Close enough for killing in Florida. Just your traditional Christian values at work here. Nothing out of the ordinary.

John Errol Ferguson is scheduled to be executed this Thursday.  He knows it, even if he think it’s so he can be resurrected to fight the commies with his old man, God.  And this is not only considered sane in Florida, but normal Christian beliefs.  As Fred Grimm wrote, “[e]ven for fervent advocates of capital punishment, that’s got to take a bit of the fun out of execution day.

Update: An appeal has been filed , and two professors of religion, John Kelsay and David Levenson, of Florida State University have filed an amici brief  that Ferguson’s psychotic view does not reflect normal Christian beliefs, but “differ radically from traditional Christian teaching.”

Update 2: The Florida Supreme Court  New York Times has an editorial against the execution of Crazy John Ferguson. The Supreme Court, however, did not read it. The Court  denied the petition for cert and a stay of execution.  Ferguson will be executed on October 23rd.

Update 4:  And a habeas petition hearing has been granted (h/t Ed. at Blawgreview):

U.S. District Judge Daniel T. K. Hurley granted the motion for a stay in the case of John Errol Ferguson, who was to be executed Tuesday after 34 years on Florida’s death row.

“The issues raised merit full, reflective consideration,” the court said.

If nothing else, Ferguson will not be executed on Tuesday.

Update 5: While others were watching the third presidential debate, the 11th Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, vacated Judge Hurley’s stay of execution, by-passing the usual practice of allowing the district court to hold its hearing and reach a decision, and thus forcing the case toward death without a habeas determination.

Update 6: Ferguson was scheduled to be executed today, October 23rd, but the 11th Circuit granted a stay of execution and ordered the matter briefed, despite it’s having vacated a stay the day before.

21 comments on “The Execution of John Errol Ferguson: Just “Normal Christian” Crazy (Update x6)

  1. Max Kennerly

    Nobody who believes in an afterlife has a “rational appreciation of the death penalty.” Most people would not say (or at least admit) they were going to be “the right hand of God,” but the court is correct that, under mainstream Christian theologies, when Christians die they ascend to heaven.

    If he genuinely believed he was going to play Battleship with Death, that would be another matter.

  2. Brett Middleton

    I would also say that nobody who DISbelieves in an afterlife has a “rational appreciation.” As an agnostic myself, I don’t see how it is even possible to rationally appreciate anything, such as death, about which you know almost nothing. A factual awareness of its existence is about the best one can manage. Just sayin’.

  3. Max Kennerly

    Read the post and the opinion, and now just read the amicus brief. The amicus brief seals the deal, admitting that the standard Christian view is that “the immortal soul … enters the presence of God at the time of death.” Is that a “rational appreciation” of death? Of course not, it is an article of faith.

    Ferguson believes the same thing, with some delusions of grandeur added in. So what? The man can hold a normal, polite conversation in which he can express a tenet of faith no more or less “rational” than the tenets of faith held by the guards around him. To claim that he has no understanding of death just because he believes in an afterlife is to absolve all religious folk from the death penalty, which would indeed be both insulting to religious people and unfair to everyone else.

    Are courts now in the business of deciding whose religious beliefs are insane? Can we no longer execute someone who says their Thetan was assailed by Xenu?

  4. John David Galt

    I see nothing wrong with the court’s ruling. When you come down to it, anyone with a very strong religious belief of any kind can reasonably be labeled “obsessed” or even “delusional”; and yet, many of them can understand their own actions well enough that it would be a travesty to let them escape justice for murder.

    I refrain from comment on the death penalty because that subject has been done to death and nobody is going to change anyone else’s mind about it.

    The one really disturbing thing here is the notion (implied though not directly raised) that the mental hospital which had Ferguson in custody in 1975 should be held liable in some way for releasing him. While such a possibility would be emotionally satisfying to families of his victims, it would also have a very bad effect: from then on, no mental institution would dare release a patient if they thought there’s any possibility he might hurt people later — so goodbye to due process and the presumption of innocence. This would be a much worse fate for our nation than a few dozen horrible murders, and we must not cause it to happen.

  5. SHG

    The problem is that you have it backwards. He is not insane because Christian beliefs are irrational. He is insane because he’s been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.  The ruling is that despite being a paranoid schizophrenic, because his paranoid delusions bear an arguable resemblence to Christian beliefs (which the religion professors apparently disagree with, though they obviously lack your brilliance), that makes him worthy of execution.

    Are you in the business of rationalizing why insane people should be put to death anyway if you can manufacture a similarity between paranoid delusions and Christian theology?

  6. SHG

    Ironic that you chime in on a post about a crazy man. I assume the two of you know each other from group therapy?  Have you offered to flip the switch yet.

  7. Max Kennerly

    No, you have it backwards: you think that, if some absurd postulate can make him appear insane, then he cannot be executed.

    The standard is if he “lacks the mental capacity to understand the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it.” I’m using that standard, you’re using something else.

    As the opinion says, “Ferguson stopped taking any psychotropIc medIcation in the year 2000, and has subsequently refused any such medication, he says, because of the physical side effects.” Despite not having any medication for twelve years, he’s lucid, conversational, and understood every aspect of the proceedings, including the precise number of murders he was convicted of committing (he corrected a doctor in the interview), which doctors worked for the state and which worked for his defense lawyers, and so on and so forth, including knowing that he was scheduled to executed.

    Against this obvious evidence that he understood the fact of the execution and its reasons, the defense started grasping at straws. The defense doctor opined, dubiously, that “the prison guards and inmates who are in daily contact with Ferguson would not see any manifestations of hallucinations, or his reactions to them, because he currently hides his hallucinations and delusions,” as if there was such a thing as a mental illness so powerful it rendered its victim insane yet so weak it could be “hidden.”

    That argument was obviously crap, so they were left with a fallback argument: yes, the guy has not been medicated for years, and shows every understanding of his execution — and will politely discuss the details of his prosecution and conviction — but, well, he also thinks he’ll ascend to heaven, so therefore he doesn’t understand the execution.

    This argument is, as I said before, poppycock. It’s not proof that he “lacks the mental capacity to understand the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it.” If it was, it would be applicable to all people who believe in the afterlife. No, it’s merely proof that he has wacky religious beliefs. So what? He “understands the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it.” If you want a different rule, then argue for it, don’t try to shoehorn your argument into a rule that Ferguson plainly fails.

  8. SHG

    Well, don’t you get excited when you really want to see someon executed. I really appreciate the fourth grade riposte, “No, you have it backward.”

    You’ve embraced the state’s argument, ignoring 50 years of psychosis and the fact, as held by the judge, that he believes he’s the Prince of God, fighting the commies.  That’s fine, Max. If this is what you view as perfectly sane, than it makes complete sense that you are fully behind his execution. Most people don’t think normal Christians are paranoid schizophrenics with psychotic delusions. You disagree.

  9. Brett Middleton

    The state, being far from infallible, has no business excuting anyone as far as I’m concerned. The fact that they’ve cobbled up an excuse to execute an insane man is no more, or less, concerning to me than their ability to cobble up an excuse to execute anyone else.

    Stopping the killing machine shouldn’t be a matter of finding arbitrary outs for individuals based on evaluations of their beliefs, but a matter of principle. This one should get off because his beliefs are delusional, that one should die because his beliefs are not so considered? I think Max is making a good point about the subjective nature of this kind of evaluation. It doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know Max, but pointing out the flaws in this particular argument against executing Ferguson does not necessarily mean that he’s slavering to see Ferguson executed. Perhaps he is, but that has no bearing on the validity of his argument.

    In a case like this, how do you prove that someone’s beliefs are “delusions”? This one says he’ll go to heaven when he dies. That one says he’ll be reincarnated when he dies. Another says he’ll become part of the galactic group overmind. Which one is delusional, if any? Can any of them really be called rational?

    The reason we regard Ferguson as delusional isn’t because he doesn’t understand his execution but because he seems to think it’s a GOOD thing, while “normal” people would disagree. As near as I can tell, he believes that, like Christ, he has to be sacrificed in order to fulfill his role in God’s Plan and kill the commies. We say he’s delusional not because he thinks he’s going to heaven but because he thinks he’ll get a special job when he gets there.

    Yeah, he sounds nuts to me, too. But, so do a lot of beliefs that are more socially acceptable. Shrinks are good at making dubious distinctions that are socially useful. Ask the commisars in the USSR. Or Thomas Szasz.

  10. SHG

    I’m fairly sure that Max isn’t a big supporter of capital punishment, but suggest it to make the point that his excessive zeal in arguing that Ferguson should be executed has blinded his ability to see that his argument is backwards, that the “normal Christian beliefs” conclusion isn’t being used affirmatively by the defense to prevent his execution, but by the judge to rationalize his paranoid delusions.  Max has a longstanding problem with moderating his vehemence.

    You appear to fall into the same trap, likely as a by-product of reading Max’s comment.

    In a case like this, how do you prove that someone’s beliefs are “delusions”?

    The defendant has been a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic for 50 years, maintaining paranoid delusions of his being the Prince of God long before he was sentenced to death. The question isn’t whether the defendant has suddenly manufactured delusions to avoid execution, but whether he is sufficiently sane if his delusions can be rationalized as being within the ambit of traditional religious beliefs. Regardless of one’s belief in religion, or that all the dogma is sufficiently irrational as to be impossible to distinguish from actual paranoid delusions, Ferguson was psychotic before the murders, psychotic after the murders and still psychotic. Explaining away his delusions doesn’t change that, and his delusions of being the Prince of God remain just that, psychotic delusions.

  11. Bruce Coulson

    *ahem* On your side note, I would think in a rational world, the blame for Ferguson’s acts after 1976 would fall primarily upon the officials who ignored a direct statement that if released, Ferguson would pose a threat to others in the community. It’s one thing if someone is released based on an erroneous assessment of their mental state; quite another when subsequent events show the original diagnosis to be highly accurate. Had Ferguson been kept institutionalized from 1975 on, five people would still be alive, and Ferguson would not face execution for those acts.

  12. gloria tucker

    Why is everyone so worried about the rights of Ferguson? What about the rights of his 8 victims? They are the ones that had the right to life! This is exactly why the death penalty is not a deterrant to murder. Ferguson has lived over 35 years since his crimes. His victims’ families have grieved for over 35 years.

  13. Antonin I. Pribetic

    Judge Glant notes:

    “This Court finds the testimony and opinions of Dr. Woods and Dr. Rogers both credible and compelling as it relates to Ferguson’s documented history of paranoid schizophrenia.

    Regardless of his long history of mental illness, there is no evidence that he does not understand what is taking place and why it is taking place. Ferguson’s “Prince of God” delusion, as well as his religious beliefs show a man who has a remarkably clear and relatively
    normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one.”

    Reading Max Kennerley’s comments above, I can only conclude that he has no personal or professional experience with paranoid schizophrenia. Both a family member and a former client suffer from this mental illness. It remains misdiagnosed, maltreated and misunderstood.

    The fact that Judge Glant rejected the State’s experts opinions that Ferguson is malingering is telling.

    I am not qualified to determine whether Max’s view is based on some form of delusion—cognitive or otherwise. It is devoid of merit.

    In this case, there is no method in the madness. Contorting a technical argument of the legal standard for competency, bereft of context and the actual factual and evidentiary findings that Ferguson is a paranoid schizophrenic, is sophistry.

    To conflate Ferguson’s god delusion with normal Christian belief is a disservice to both the mentally ill and Christians. I say this, even as a card-carrying atheist.

    Perhaps ironically, one of the two Captcha phrases to post this comment were “Scripture”.

  14. SHG

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Caring about the execution of an insane person doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the tragic murder of his 8 victims.  But killing Ferguson will not unkill his victims or diminish their families’ loss.

  15. gloria tucker

    The court system heard the expert testimony of trained psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as guards on death row who have dealt with many condemned killers, and they ruled that he was competent to die for his crimes. He has gone through many appeals to arrive at this point. What makes people who are not trained think they know more that these expert witnesses?

  16. SHG

    You’re going to make Max very upset that you didn’t succumb to his overwhelming analysis. Shh! Or he’ll write more.

  17. Christina

    Gloria…Kudos to you!
    SHG…I am Ferguson’s last victims (Brian’s) sister. It is a shame that anyone, courts and the general public, would care about his sanity or lack thereof with respect to execution. Who cares what he “understands or feels” about being executed, or before life, or after life! Does anyone stop for a moment and wonder what did my brother and his friend Belinda think when they were being killed and raped by this vicious man, were their religious beliefs or state of mind when being murdered considered? I have one question for ALL of you… THIS IS YOUR BROTHER WHO WAS KILLED BY FERGUSON, WHAT DO YOU WANT THE COURT TO DO? AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO? Awaiting your reply and awaiting justice, I remain.

  18. SHG

    If it was my brother, I would feel just as you do.  I am sorry for your loss.

    The argument about Ferguson’s psychosis in no way diminishes your loss, our sympathy for the horrible things suffered by his victims or the horror of what Ferguson did.

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