Psychological Issues in the Courts

John Errol Ferguson was scheduled to be executed in the State of Florida on Tuesday, October 23, 2012, for the execution-style murders of six people and the attempted murders of two others in 1977 plus the murders of a teenage couple in 1978 (the girl was also raped).  While there’s no question as to Ferguson’s guilt, the execution was nevertheless stayed (suspended) by a federal district judge, pending consideration of Ferguson’s lawyers’ claim that he (Ferguson) is mentally incompetent to be executed.  In 1986, the Unites States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional (cruel and unusual punishment) to execute a convict who, at the time of his/her scheduled execution, had become mentally incapable of understanding what was happening to him/her and why.  Then, in 2007, the Court clarified the required mental state to be a “rational understanding” of what’s happening and why.

Ferguson, who carries a diagnosis of Schizophrenia, reportedly believes that he’s a “prince” on a mission from “God,” and his lawyers have gone to court to try to stop his execution before.  First, they appealed to the Governor of Florida for clemency (commutation of Ferguson’s sentence from death to life in prison without parole).  Gov. Rick Scott then convened a panel of mental health professionals to assess Ferguson’s understanding of what was to happen to him and why, and that panel concluded that, despite his Schizophrenia, Ferguson did in fact understand.  Gov. Scott denied the appeal for clemency, and Ferguson’s attorneys then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the process that Gov. Scott had used to reach his decision unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court declined to hear that case and refused to grant a stay of execution.

So now, Ferguson’s lawyers are back in federal court, this time asking that the Governor’s experts’ conclusion be disregarded and that Ferguson be ruled incompetent to be executed, at least for the time being.  Incidentally, such a ruling would raise a fascinating ethical issue for Florida mental health professionals as to whether to treat Ferguson’s Schizophrenia, knowing that if they succeeded in alleviating the symptoms which were causing his incompetency, they could actually be facilitating his death.  Based on the concurrence of experts who’ve assessed him directly, if I had to bet my own money on this case, I’d bet that Ferguson does have a rational understanding of what a death sentence means and why he received one, and I’ll predict that the federal courts will delay, but ultimately not prevent, his execution.  If it plays out differently, however, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, John Joseph Delling is serving life in prison without parole in the State of Idaho for the murders of two people and the attempted murder of another back in 2007.  At his trial, Delling was found to have meticulously planned the crimes but claimed to have done so because he was “a type of Jesus” and the victims had been stealing his “energy.”  Idaho is one of four states, including my state, Kansas, that limit the use of a mental status as a criminal defense to only those cases in which the defendant, because of a mental disease or defect (not including voluntary intoxication), was incapable of forming the intent to commit the crime.  In most jurisdictions, a defendant can be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” if the defendant was incapable of knowing that his/her actions were wrong, meaning that the defendant either 1) couldn’t have known what he/she was doing, or 2) couldn’t have known that what he/she was doing was wrong.  Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah have essentially removed that second part.

And with good reason — it’s tough to imagine a case in which a defendant, like Delling, was capable of knowing what he was doing, e.g. killing people who weren’t attacking him at the time, consciously chose to do it, but was somehow incapable of knowing that it was wrong, meaning “wrong” by society’s standards at least, i.e. incapable of knowing that it was against the law.  Essentially, the citizens of the states mentioned above, through their elected representatives, have concluded that whenever someone knows what he/she is doing and is making conscious choices about what to do, i.e. acting with intent, then there’s going to be a universal assumption that the person could’ve also known that a particular action was against the law, if he/she had cared to give that any thought.  Incidentally, in every American jurisdiction, including the four states mentioned above, reasonable self-defense is a defense to homicide, and even when a defendant believed, mistakenly but in good faith, that self-defense was necessary (known as “imperfect self-defense”), the culpability level of the homicide is reduced, e.g. from murder to manslaughter.  In Delling’s case, however, he didn’t even claim to have believed, reasonably or unreasonably, that his victims were about to cause his death or grave bodily harm at the times when he killed them.  He merely (allegedly) believed that they had been stealing from him, in which case his legal recourse was to call the police and report the alleged theft.

After his conviction and sentence, Delling’s lawyers appealed up through the state courts in Idaho, arguing that Delling had a constitutional right to the more common, two-pronged insanity defense described above.  After the Idaho Supreme Court rejected that argument, Delling’s lawyers filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, urging it to declare that criminal defendants, anywhere in the U.S.A., are entitled to that two-pronged insanity defense.  To date, the Supreme Court has not agreed to hear the case, but it could still do so as it continues to review this fall’s filings.  I predict that the Supreme Court will decline to hear Delling’s case, leaving both the state law and Delling’s sentence intact, but again, if it plays out differently, I’ll let you know.

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2 Responses to Psychological Issues in the Courts

  1. UPDATE: I predicted it would happen, but not this fast — a federal appeals court lifted the district court’s stay of Ferguson’s execution, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied Ferguson’s lawyers’ petition for yet another stay, allowing Florida to proceed with the execution.

  2. UPDATE: Believe it or not, the federal appeals court granted yet another emergency stay of Ferguson’s execution, almost literally at the last minute, this time for the purpose of holding a hearing to ascertain whether Ferguson’s lawyers have any “new” evidence establishing that Ferguson is too mentally ill to be executed. Once again, I predict that this will delay Ferguson’s execution by a period of days or weeks but will not prevent it.

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