U.S. Supreme Court

Should inmate with prince of God delusion be executed? ABA seeks clarification of standard


The ABA has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the competency standard for execution in the case of a death-row inmate who has asserted that he is the “prince of God.”

In an amicus brief (PDF), the ABA supports the cert petition filed on behalf of John Ferguson, who has a long history of mental illness. An ABA press release summarizes the ABA’s arguments.

In the brief, the ABA says lower courts have issued conflicting rulings since the U.S. Supreme Court considered the competency issue in Panetti v. Quarterman. The 2007 decision said an inmate must have a rational understanding of the execution to be put to death.

Several state courts have concluded that the decision did not change their legal standards. “These courts continue to limit their examination to whether a prisoner who raises a claim of incompetency to be executed is aware of his sentence, and fail to ask whether the prisoner appreciates its import,” the ABA brief says.

ABA policy adopted in 2006 says that a death sentence should not be carried out if the prisoner has a mental disorder or disability that significantly impairs his or her capacity to understand the nature and purpose of the punishment, or to appreciate the reason for its imposition in the prisoner’s own case.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Ferguson’s execution in May. Its opinion said the U.S. Supreme Court did not define the concept of “rational understanding.” But its reasoning leaves “ample room” to conclude that Ferguson is competent to be executed, the 11th Circuit concluded in a May opinion (PDF).

Ferguson has expressed a belief that he is the prince of God and he will be resurrected after his death, according to the 11th Circuit. “One could argue, as Ferguson’s attorneys do, that his belief that he will be resurrected as the Prince of God negates a rational understanding that he will be killed and thereby establishes that he is not mentally competent to be executed,” the 11th Circuit said. “That cannot be correct. Panetti cannot mean that a belief in resurrection or other forms of life after death is inconsistent with the rational understanding of death that is required for mental competence to be executed. If it did mean that, most Americans would be mentally incompetent to be executed.”

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