SCOTUS's Meaningless Death Penalty Rules

Monday evening, the state of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson. This was not an act of injustice because Ferguson was innocent—he brutally killed eight people. It was an act of injustice because Ferguson was mentally ill. The Eighth Amendment forbids his execution.

In 2008, the Supreme Court held that a person cannot be executed if he or she is insane at the time of his or her execution. To the extent that the term has meaning, it's hard to imagine that it doesn't apply to Ferguson, who experts have testified has a "genuine belief" that he is the "prince of God" and has the power to control the sun. Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones details Ferguson's history of mental illness:

Ferguson's story, and long-documented record of mental illness, starts back in 1965, when records show Ferguson was suffering from hallucinations. In 1971, he was committed to a state mental hospital after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. For the next several years, court-appointed doctors repeatedly reported that Ferguson was psychotic and in need of long-term hospitalization.

In 1975, a court-appointed psychiatrist reported that Ferguson was "suffering from a major mental disorder and is extremely dangerous to himself and others. He is dangerous to the point where he is considered homicidal ... He should be in a maximum security ward … He should not be released under any circumstances."

As Mencimer goes on to explain, Ferguson was nonetheless released from custody, a decision and failure of judgment that cost eight people their lives. Yet Florida continues to deny the obvious about Ferguson's paranoid schizophrenia. Despite its earlier command, the Supreme Court allowed him to be executed without comment.

This kind of outcome is becoming a pattern for the Court, as we saw earlier this year with respect to its formal holding that executing someone with a severe mental handicap violates the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court's prohibition on executing the mentally handicapped or severely ill have become more of a Potemkin village façade of fairness than the real thing because of its refusal to define or enforce any kind of substantive standard to determine whom the rule applies to. The Court's deference to state determinations—no matter how implausible they are—means that the only states that won't execute those with severe mental incapacities are those already committed not to doing so. Any state that lacks that commitment can proceed as before.

This is illustrative of the larger problem with the death penalty: The American criminal-justice system does not appear capable of rationally designating only those most clearly culpable of heinous crimes for execution. It remains true, in the memorable phrase of Justice Potter Stewart, that capital punishment as applied by the states is "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." Some people are executed while others found guilty of more horrible crimes in the same state are not, and some people who are executed are probably not guilty of anything. The Supreme Court's occasional gestures towards making the death penalty less arbitrary have done almost nothing to alter this fact.

And yet, as Sarah Muller of MSNBC points out, not only is Florida refraining from tightening its procedures, it's actively seeking to speed up executions with its "Timely Justice Act." It's become increasingly hard to imagine that the Supreme Court will stand in the state's way, which will have the effect of making an already unjust and error-prone process for killing people even more so.

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