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Too mentally ill for death? Florida executes man who lost Supreme Court appeal.

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Mr. Handman had argued that Ferguson’s case would offer the high court an opportunity to identify with greater precision the parameters judges are to use when deciding whether a condemned prisoner is mentally competent enough to face execution.

Because the death penalty is a form of state-authorized retribution for crime, it is essential that the condemned prisoner appreciate the significance of the punishment, legal experts say. Without that appreciation, the process would lack any retributive purpose and amount to a government killing without an accepted justification. That would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to legal experts.

John Ferguson has been on death row for 35 years after being convicted of involvement in two different multiple murders.

In 1977, Ferguson and two accomplices carried out a home-invasion robbery in Miami in which they bound eight people, tying their hands behind their backs, and made them kneel before shooting each in the head. Two of the victims survived and told police what happened.

Six months later, Ferguson came upon two 17-year-old high school students parked in a car by the side of the road in Hialeah, Fla. He shot the boy and chased the girl into nearby woods, where he raped her, stole her jewelry, and then forced her to kneel before shooting her in the head. Ferguson then returned to the car and shot the boy again, this time in the head.

Ferguson had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for decades. Mental-health experts documented a history of delusions and hallucinations. He was said to believe that his pending execution was a plot by the state of Florida to prevent him from ascending to sit on a heavenly throne at the right hand of God.

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