Life, Death, Courts, Law & Conscience

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Last week in Florida, John Errol Ferguson was executed. Sixty-five, he had been on death row for 30 years for killing eight people. He is also mentally ill, a a paranoid schizophrenic. The 11th Circuit cleared the execution, of this man who declared himself the Prince of God who upon death would rise to save America from some Communist plot.

From one news report: 

Ferguson and two others were convicted of killing six people in 1977 during a robbery at a Carol City house used by marijuana dealers. Ferguson dressed as a utility worker to gain access and let his accomplices inside. Most of the victims were friends who happened to drop by the house while Ferguson and the other men were there. The victims were blindfolded and bound, and the encounter turned violent after a mask fell off one of Ferguson’s gang members and his face was spotted by a victim.

The decision was made to kill all eight people in the house. Two survived. At the time, it was the worst mass slaying ever in Miami-Dade County.

Ferguson also was convicted of the 1978 murder of a 17-year-old couple, Brian Glenfeldt and Belinda Worley, from Hialeah. They were shot as Ferguson, dressed as a police officer, tried to rob them while they were parked at a lovers’ lane. Worley was raped.

The randomness of the crime and the age of the victims stunned many in Miami. Ferguson confessed to killing “the two kids” after he was arrested in April 1978 for the earlier killings, court records show.

Worley’s mother, Edna Worley, waited for decades for Ferguson’s execution but died last year.

Ferguson was sentenced to die in both cases; he used the insanity defense in the trial over the teenagers’ murders.

The issue of Ferguson’s mental stability was a current that ran through his life, and his execution came after months of court appeals. Ferguson’s lawyers said their client had a long history of mental illness. The attorneys appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that Ferguson lacked “rational understanding” that he will be executed and that killing him would be “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the Eighth Amendment.

Christopher Handman, Ferguson’s lead attorney, said his client’s mental illness manifested itself long before the slayings. Ferguson’s alcoholic father died when Ferguson was 13, and that’s when he started experiencing hallucinations, family members told the attorney. Ferguson also experienced abuse by his mother’s boyfriends, then was abandoned by his mom and raised by his sisters in a vermin-infested shack in Miami-Dade County.

When he was 21, he was shot in the head by a police officer in Miami. For several years in the 1970s, Ferguson was in a state mental hospital and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; he was twice found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity. Handman said one doctor wrote that Ferguson should not be released because he was a danger to himself and to society.

But he was released and, months later, committed the Carol City murders.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared him for execution, determining him “mentally competent to be executed despite his mental illness and the presence of a delusional belief.” The Supreme Court was asked but didn’t get involved. 

I really don’t understand how we can tolerate killing the innocent, the most vulnerable, and the sick – also vulnerable.

The Religion News Service has up an interview with Karen Clifton, the executive director of a group that opposes the death penalty, the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty; it includes some insights on the humanity admist the most inhumane crimes:

MO: In addition to fighting against capital punishment, you promote restorative justice. What’s the goal of restorative justice?

KC: Restorative Justice asks us to consider how we achieve justice and promote healing of the victim, the perpetrator, and the whole community. It’s not an easy out for the perpetrators; it’s actually more difficult. The offender has to recognize what they have done, own their actions, and then work to restore the harm they have caused. Through our retributive system of justice, all is focused on the offender. We need a system that gives the victim a voice, as well as the means to heal. The death penalty has proven not to be a source of healing, but a system that re-victimizes the victim’s family for many, many years.

Asked whether moral arguments or economic arguments are more compelling to people, you perhaps can guess the answer:

MO:  What’s more effective in converting people to your cause, moral arguments or economic ones?

KC: Depends on the audience. I would say initially, the economic arguments are more effective. People have usually not thought about the death penalty and often they don’t know the facts. If you give them the facts about cost, then they are often open to hearing the moral arguments as well. They often don’t know that execution can cost three times more than a life sentence in the highest level security prison, that poverty plays a major role in who gets the death penalty, as people with money do not sit on death row, that it’s racially biased, that one-third of all executions come from only 15 counties in the US, that there is a high probability of executing an innocent person. Once people hear this, they are open to hearing the moral arguments about a flawed system playing God, the lack of redemption, and the dignity of human life.

Shouldn’t – particularly people who profess to be Christian – feel pretty damned bothered by the fact we so often don’t even pause as we watch local news stories or see headlines about men and women killed by the state? I suppose when we talk about pink sneakers and go Vogue instead of confronting the fact unborn children who can feel pain are legally killed in the womb in the U.S. — and left to die in botched late-term abortions – it’s not a surprise that we’d let ourselves off easy when it comes to men who’ve done abhorrent things and ended lives. But we’re complicit in injustice ourselves if we look away from these things or, even, celebrate. And that’s not just for Christians. We’re a nation founded on a belief in the inherent right to life. And there needed to be justice in the case of Ferguson, but I can’t see how justice is served when the state intentionally kills a mentally ill man.

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