American Bar Association asks Supreme Court to clarify competency standard for Florida death row inmate

Mass murderer John Ferguson is scheduled to be executed by the state of Florida next Monday at 6 p.m. at the Florida State Prison. The 65 year old has been on death row for the past 35 years after his conviction for murdering six people in a drug-related crime in Carol City and Hialeah in Miami-Dade County in 1977. Although he was indicted for those murders, he wasn't jailed. He subsequently murdered two more people in 1978.

Questions about Ferguson's mental capacity were introduced by his attorneys going back to his first trial in 1978. Now the American Bar Association (ABA) is getting involved, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the Eighth Amendment standard to be applied when determining competency to be executed.

On Monday, the ABA filed an amicus brief in support of a request made by Ferguson's attorney on Friday that the high court offer a judicial review in his case, claiming that "several courts," including the Florida Supreme Court, have misapplied the high court's precedent that for a prisoner to be executed, he must have a rational understanding of the meaning and purpose of his execution.

“John Ferguson is a sick, elderly man. Executing Mr. Ferguson would be an unconscionable violation of the Eighth Amendment and our shared values respecting human life. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that the Constitution prohibits the cruel and unusual punishment of executing people like Mr. Ferguson who have no rational understanding of why they are being put to death or the effect of their execution,” said Christopher Handman, Mr. Ferguson's attorney.

In its amicus brief, the ABA stated that “holding a person accountable is intended to be an affirmation of personal responsibility. Executing someone who lacks a meaningful understanding of the nature of this awesome punishment and its retributive purpose offends the concept of personal responsibility rather than affirming it."

In September, Gov. Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant, setting an Oct. 16 execution date. According to Miami Herald, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge ruled that Ferguson, while likely mentally ill, was raising the claim too late.

In examining the request by Ferguson's lawyers to determine his competency, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie said Ferguson "undoubtedly suffers from mental illness," but the request was "untimely," according to the Herald.

A press release from the ABA stated that the juries that recommended death sentences for Ferguson never heard any evidence of his mental illness, "despite that he has been diagnosed with psychosis and schizophrenia more than 40 times spanning 40 years of his life."  

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