STARKE -- After several days of extraordinary legal scrambling that took mass murderer John Errol Ferguson’s Death Row case from Miami to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., a late-night court victory kept him from a date with death but left his victims’ families still waiting for final justice.
“We can’t put into words the amount of frustration,” said Michael Worley, whose 17-year-old sister, Belinda, was raped and shot to death by Ferguson in a Hialeah field in 1978. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”
For defense lawyers, the late Tuesday night decision by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to stay his execution is a chance to prove once and for all that Ferguson — convicted of eight Miami-Dade slayings in the 1970s — is too mentally ill to know why he is facing lethal injection.
But for the state and the victims’ families, Tuesday night was another devastating blow in meting out justice, made worse by seemingly conflicting court decisions that initially paved the way for execution.
“We are at the point now that we just want this to be over,” Worley said.
Ferguson was convicted of the July 1977 murders of six Carol City residents during a home-invasion robbery. At the time, it was the worst mass murder in Miami-Dade history.
Now 64, Ferguson also was convicted separately of murdering two teenagers, Belinda Worley and Brian Glenfeldt, 17, in January 1978. Both attended Hialeah High School.
His lawyers have long tried to save Ferguson’s life by claiming that the long-diagnosed schizophrenic is too ill to understand why he is to be executed. His death would violate Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” they say.
Ferguson believes he is the “Prince of God,” and speaks to his dead father, according to lawyer Christopher Handman.
In September, Gov. Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant, setting an Oct. 16 execution date. Soon after, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge ruled that Ferguson, while likely mentally ill, was raising the claim too late.
His lawyers appealed to a trial judge in Bradford County, where Ferguson is housed on Death Row at the Florida State Prison. Circuit Judge David Glant agreed to hear whether Ferguson was mentally competent to be executed.
After two days of hearings with testimony from experts, Glant ruled that the defendant was mentally competent to be executed.
The judge said Ferguson’s belief that he would sit at the right hand of God after death was not unusual for a Christian, an opinion rejected by defense experts.
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal of Glant’s order, and the state scheduled the execution for 6 p.m. Tuesday.
On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley issued a stay on the execution, saying the mental health issues needed to be fleshed out in his court. He set a schedule for filing more court briefs.
Hurley’s decision was a surprise for the Florida Attorney General’s Office because attorneys had not responded in writing to the defense’s petition to Hurley.
They immediately appealed to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which on Monday lifted the stay. The appeals court ruled Hurley had “abused” his discretion, and that Ferguson was not likely to succeed in proving that the Florida Supreme Court was wrong.