Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

Insanity infects both the mass killer and the justice system

What price are you willing to pay for justice?

Would you sacrifice compassion? A small slice of morality?

Would you defy a landmark provision within the U.S. Constitution? If you're unsure, consider this:

The state of Florida was scheduled to execute John Errol Ferguson on Tuesday but a federal judge granted an emergency stay on Saturday.

Ferguson, 64, was convicted of eight murders in South Florida in 1978, admitted to two more while in jail, and evidence suggests he also is responsible for the death of a St. Petersburg couple in 1977.

So, no, empathy does not run deep for the man.

The issue, however, is whether Ferguson is sane enough to be put to death.

The victim of a horrific childhood, Ferguson was declared psychotic and incompetent by a court-appointed doctor in 1971, years before his first murder conviction.

Another expert testified that Ferguson, while facing robbery charges in 1975, was a danger to others. A third expert was more succinct:

"He should not be released under any circumstances."

Yet he was transferred from a state hospital to a prison, and was back on the street within a year. His murderous spree began a short time later.

"He is completely paranoid. A schizophrenic," said his attorney, Christopher Handman, whose law firm, Hogan Lovells, has represented Ferguson pro bono for more than 30 years. "When you meet him, he is deeply suspicious of your motives.

"He has a very tenuous grasp on reality."

The sparring over his punishment has gone on for decades. Appeals have been upheld, denied and ignored at various court levels since 1978.

The latest argument revolves around the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation that it extends to the execution of an insane person.

Judges have ruled Ferguson understands his sentence and is therefore eligible for execution. Handman argues his client has a factual understanding, but not a rational appreciation. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case on Friday, but a federal judge ruled late Saturday that the issues raised had merit.

So, once again, justice waits.

It has been 35 years since Ferguson and two other men tied and blindfolded eight people and shot them in the backs of their heads in a drug-related robbery. Two survived.

It has been 35 years since an elderly couple from St. Pete went to Miami for a funeral and were tied up in their hotel room and shot in the backs of their heads with the same gun used in the other murders. Ferguson was never charged.

It has been 34 years since Belinda Worley and Brian Glenfeldt, a pair of 17-year-olds at Hialeah High, went out for ice cream and never came home. Glenfeldt was robbed and murdered, and Worley was raped by Ferguson before he killed her.

"Belinda was so sweet. She had long, silky, honey-blond hair. That kid looked like an angel. She was an angel," said Valerie Murguia, a classmate. "The idea that that (expletive) is still alive sickens me. He's beat the system for 34 years.

"He's lived an entire life since then."

Is Ferguson insane? Probably. Would his death be cruel and unusual punishment? Technically, I suppose.

Should justice prevail over legal parsing in this case?

I hope so, eventually.

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