STARKE, Fla. (AP) — A convicted mass killer from the 1970s faced a scheduled execution Tuesday evening after an appeals court lifted a last-minute stay that was based on his mental illness. His attorneys sought a last-minute reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The planned execution of John Ferguson, 64, was back on for 6 p.m. at Florida State Prison barring another court-ordered delay, state corrections officials said. Ferguson has been on Florida’s death row for 34 years.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday lifted a stay put in place over the weekend by a judge in Florida. Ferguson’s lawyers argued he is mentally ill and therefore the Constitution prohibits the state from executing him.
His attorneys sought reinstatement of the stay in an emergency filing Tuesday morning with the U.S. Supreme Court. There was no immediate ruling from the justices.
Meanwhile, Ferguson ate a final meal of a chicken sandwich and sweet iced tea, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Ann Howard. He saw a chaplain and his attorney and said he planned to make no statement, she said.
Ferguson was convicted of killing eight people in South Florida in 1977 and 1978, including a teenage couple.
Two of the three appeals court judges in Atlanta ruled that U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley “abused” his discretion on Saturday when he issued a stay in the case.
Chris Handman, one of Ferguson’s lawyers, said in a statement that he’s disappointed a divided panel vacated the stay of execution. He said he remains “hopeful that the Supreme Court will reverse this decision because there is no evidence that Mr. Ferguson has a rational understanding of the reason for, and effect of, his execution.”
The Florida Supreme Court this month upheld a lower court ruling based on testimony by a panel of psychiatrists appointed by Gov. Rick Scott that Ferguson is legally competent to be executed even though he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
The state justices wrote that “Ferguson understands what is taking place and why.”
Ferguson’s lawyers contend an inmate’s awareness of his execution as the state’s rationale for putting him to death is not enough. They argue the inmate must have a “rational understanding,” a higher standard than mere awareness.
The U.S. Supreme Court set the rational understanding standard in a 2007 case, but the Florida justices noted that the opinion specified that it wasn’t attempting to “set down a rule governing all competency determinations.”
Ferguson lacks rational understanding, his lawyers say, because he suffers from delusions that he’s the “prince of God” and that God is preparing him to return to Earth after his execution and save the United States from a communist plot.
Ferguson was convicted of two sets of murders and is suspected in a third.
In 1977, Ferguson and two accomplices fatally shot six people at a Carol City home, which at the time was the worst mass slaying in Miami-Dade County history. Even more shocking was Ferguson’s murder of a teenage couple who had left a church event in Hialeah in 1978 with plans to meet friends for ice cream. They never made it.
Ferguson pretended to be an electric utility worker to gain access to the Carol City house, which police said was a local hangout for marijuana dealers who the bandits wanted to rob of drugs and cash. Former Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman said most of the victims were friends who happened to drop by the house while Ferguson and the other men were there. The victims were blindfolded and bound, but the encounter turned violent after a mask worn by one of Ferguson’s gang fell off and his face was spotted by a victim.
The decision was made to kill all eight people in the house, Waksman said. They were shot one by one. Two managed to survive.
Waksman, now a legal adviser to a local police department, said it was a difficult crime scene for even hardened detectives to work.
“It was the first time I saw six dead bodies. It was a pretty shocking sight,” Waksman said.
Almost six months later, passers-by spotted the bodies of Brian Glenfeldt and Belinda Worley, both 17, who had both been fatally shot. Worley also had been raped. Her jewelry was missing as well as the cash from Glenfeldt’s wallet.
Trial testimony showed the couple had stopped at a romantic “lovers’ lane” when they were approached by Ferguson, dressed as a police officer. Ferguson shot Glenfeldt in the car and Worley tried to flee but was caught a short distance away by Ferguson.
The randomness of the crime and the youth of the two victims stunned many in Miami, then a slower-paced place that was yet to become the infamous “cocaine cowboys” murder capital of the 1980s. Ferguson confessed to killing “the two kids” after he was arrested in April 1978 for the Carol City killings, according to court records.
Worley’s mother, Edna Worley, waited patiently for decades for Ferguson’s execution and often said that “if she could, she would pull the switch,” her son and Belinda’s brother, Michael Worley, told The Miami Herald. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment from The Associated Press.
Edna Worley died in May, unable to see the execution day come, her son said. “She planned on attending the execution. She wanted to be there for her daughter.”
Ferguson was sentenced to die in both cases; he unsuccessfully used the insanity defense in the trial over the teenagers’ murders. Waksman said the gun he used was also traced to the killings of an elderly couple slain outside a Miami motel, but he was never charged with that crime because there was no other corroborating evidence.
The two accomplices in the Carol City slayings, Beauford White and Marvin Francois, were found guilty in separate murder trials and were both executed in the 1980s. A third man involved in the crime, who stayed in the car the entire time, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and testified against Ferguson and the other two.
It’s been 34 years since Ferguson was first sentenced to die. That is longer than many on death row but by no means the record in Florida. Corrections Department records show that several inmates have been on Death Row since the early 1970s and one, Norman Parker, first got there in 1967.
Anderson reported from Miami.