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11th Circuit Lifts Execution Stay for Mass Murderer; ABA Prez Calls for Review of Insanity Claims

Posted Oct 23, 2012 12:40 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: A federal appeals court has vacated a stay of execution for a Florida inmate who believes he is the “prince of God” and he will return to earth after his lethal injection.

In a 2-1 decision (PDF), the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal judge abused his discretion when he granted a stay for John Errol Ferguson, the Associated Press reports. Lawyers for Ferguson, who was convicted of murdering eight people in the 1970s, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay, CNN reports.

Lawyers for Ferguson say a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires more than an understanding of what is taking place and why. They say Ferguson can’t be executed unless he has a “rational understanding” of the reason for, and the effect of, his execution.

ABA President Laurel Bellows issued a statement saying a new stay should be issued and warning of a potential miscarriage of justice. Ferguson could be executed as soon as today, Bellows said.

"The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated," Bellows said. "In the interest of justice, it is imperative that Ferguson’s execution be again stayed until there is an opportunity for the federal courts to fully review his insanity claims on the merits and thus ensure that his execution will be constitutional. To do otherwise would be to risk a terrible miscarriage of justice—one that can never be undone."

Three psychiatrists appointed by Florida’s governor had found Ferguson competent for execution, and a state trial court agreed after an evidentiary hearing, according to the 11th Circuit opinion. The Florida Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.

“Ferguson fails to explain how the Florida Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law when it found that Ferguson is competent to be executed,” the 11th Circuit said. A dissenter said the federal judge who issued the stay should be allowed to review Ferguson’s claim before the appellate review. The dissent also cited doubts about whether the Florida courts correctly applied Supreme Court precedent.

Updated at 12:40 p.m. to include the statement by ABA President Laurel Bellows.

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