Eleventh Circuit rejects claim of incompetence to be executed
Posted on: 6/25/2013 04:50:22 PM by Peoples

On May 21, 2013, the Eleventh Circuit (Carnes, with Pryor; Wilson concurring in the result) issued a decision finding that "AEDPA requires that federal habeas relief be denied" to Florida death row inmate John Ferguson.  Ferguson v. Secretary, Florida Dept. of Corrections (11th Cir. May 21, 2013).  Although it was found that Ferguson suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, the state court also found that Ferguson understands that he is to die by execution and that the reason for that is because he committed eight murders.  Like many other people, Ferguson believes that there is life after death and that he is one of God's chosen people.  Ferguson, however, harbors a more "gradiose" belief than most others, also believing that he is the Prince of God who will arise following his death to be the right hand of God. The state trial court concluded that this was a genuine delusional belief but that Ferguson is nevertheless competent to be executed.  This was because there was no evidence that Ferguson did not understand what was to take place and why or that his mental illness interfered with his rational understanding of the fact of the pending execution and the reason for it.  The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's ruling, finding it to be irrelevant whether Ferguson's convictions reflected mainstream Christian principles or were delusions derived from Ferguson's mental illness.

The appeals court majority first concluded that the competency standard employed by the Florida Supreme Court was not inconsistent with the clearly established law set forth in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986) or Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007).  "Contrary to Ferguson’s contention, the Supreme Court’s decision in Panetti did not abrogate or otherwise reject the awareness standard articulated by Justice Powell [in Ford], nor did it impose a new, more rigorous standard for assessing competency to be executed. Instead, the Supreme Court in Panetti generally accepted the proposition that Ford had laid down 'the substantive federal baseline for competency,' and it clarified that the requisite 'awareness' or 'comprehension' required by Ford was tantamount to a 'rational understanding' of the connection between a prisoner’s crimes and his execution. What the Supreme Court rejected in Panetti was an overly narrow interpretation of Ford that deems a prisoner’s mental illness and delusional beliefs irrelevant to whether he can understand the fact of his pending execution and the reason for it." (Citations omitted.)  The Florida Supreme Court's decision made clear that it did consider Ferguson's paranoid schizophrenia and Prince of God delusion as they related to the issue of rational understanding. And although the Florida Supreme Court used the terms "awareness" and "understanding" interchangeably, and often without the modifier "rational," the appeals court would not presume that the state court misapplied federal law. The appeals court further found that the "AEDPA principles of deference have special force here given the Supreme Court’s recognition in Panetti that the Court itself did not know exactly what a 'rational' understanding requires."  After finding that the state court's decision was not contrary to Panetti, the appeals court rejected Ferguson's contention that the state courts could not rationally find him to be competent given their underlying factual findings that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, he was not currently malingering, and that he harbors a genuine belief that he is the Prince of God.  The appeals court noted, inter alia, that the state trial court had apparently not credited testimony by a defense expert that Ferguson believed he would not die as an immediate result of his execution or that he was being punished for reasons other than the capital murders. It was not unreasonable for the state trial court to credit the opinions of the State's expert witnesses "particularly in light of the undisputed evidence that  Ferguson has, for over a decade, adequately functioned in his day-to-day life without the need for antipsychotic medications and without exhibiting any outward manifestations of mental illness or instability to prison officials."  In addition, Ferguson had discussed with prison personnel the disposal of his body without indicating he believed that he would not physically perish.   

Judge Wilson wrote separately to express the view that the Florida Supreme Court erred in finding that Panetti did not impact the state court's prior case law on competence to be executed.  Because, however, the appeals court was required to defer to the Florida Supreme Court's finding that there was no evidence that Ferguson believes himself unable to die or that he was being executed for a reason other than his commission of murders, Wilson was obliged to concur in the result.