A convicted murderer who has spent 34 years on death row won a last minute stay of execution, as judges agreed to consider whether he was mentally competent.
John Ferguson, who says he is the “Prince of God” and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had been scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in Florida at 2200 GMT Tuesday night.
But his defense lawyers asked for time — and won it — to prepare a new appeal based on Ferguson’s mental state.
“A man who genuinely believes he is the ‘Prince of God’ with special powers from the sun, that he cannot be killed, and that he will return to Earth after execution to save America from a communist plot clearly has no ‘rational understanding’ of his execution and the effect of it,” one of his lawyers, Chris Handman said.
Ferguson was convicted of killing eight people in 1977 and 1978.
A federal appeals court granted an emergency stay Tuesday night. The state of Florida immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the stay, according to a court document seen by AFP.
The defense now has until Monday to present its new case — and the state has until November 5 to respond — on arguments regarding Ferguson’s mental competency.
The under-the-wire decisions reversed earlier rulings, in which the appeals court overturned a lower court’s stay of execution, and the Supreme Court refused to take up the matter.
Florida’s Supreme Court had previously determined that the 64-year-old Ferguson was competent to be executed, and the state said in a filing to the Supreme Court that the inmate had perhaps “exaggerated” some of his symptoms.
The new appeals court ruling says defense lawyers must now show whether the Florida Supreme Court unreasonably affirmed Ferguson was mentally competent.
Among other pieces of evidence, the attorneys must show he has a documented history of paranoid schizophrenia and that Ferguson is not in fact exaggerating his symptoms.
His lawyers say he was subjected to repeated abuse as a child — beatings by his alcoholic father, his mother and her boyfriends once his parents split up.
Florida Governor Rick Scott appointed a commission of three psychiatrists who examined Ferguson and unanimously found him competent to be executed.
But psychiatrists and lawyers had asked the Supreme Court to grant Ferguson a reprieve.