Believing You’re God Doesn’t Make You Too Crazy to Be Executed

The cowboy who tried to subpoena Jesus and six other killers with delusions of divinity.


In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that mentally ill convicts can be executed so long as they have a “rational understanding” of their sentence and the reason for it. But state authorities have interpreted that language very broadly: Take John Ferguson, a paranoid schizophrenic who killed eight people after being released from a Florida mental hospital in 1976. He believed he’d been condemned to “prevent him from ascending to his rightful throne as the Prince of God”—a perch from which he would save the United States from communism. This past May, a federal appeals court declined to commute his sentence, with one judge writing that Ferguson’s belief in an afterlife didn’t make him insane: “If it did mean that, most Americans would be mentally incompetent to be executed.” The Supreme Court passed on reviewing the case, and Ferguson was executed in August. His last words: “I am the Prince of God and I will rise again.”

Other death-row inmates with delusions of divinity:

Michael Owen Perry
Perry, who murdered five family members, believed that he was a god and that Grease star Olivia Newton-John was a goddess. In 1985, he was sentenced to death in Louisiana before another court ruled that the state could not forcibly medicate him simply to make him rational enough for execution. Perry is still on death row.

Emanuel Kemp Jr.
Sentenced to be executed in Texas in 1999, Kemp believed he was God, and therefore above punishment for a 1987 murder. He was later found to be incompetent.

Thomas Harrison Provenzano
Provenzano‘s lawyers argued that their client, who believed he was Jesus Christ, had schizophrenia, prompting a Florida legislator to quip, “Just crucify him.” He was executed in 2000.

Larry Robison
Robison was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic three years before he murdered his roommate and four neighbors in an attempt to “find God.” He believed he had received biblical prophecies through a clock in his home. Texas executed him in 2000.

Scott Louis Panetti
Panetti believes his sentence for murdering his wife’s parents is part of a satanic plot to keep him from his divine mission to spread the word of God. He represented himself in court dressed as a cowboy and tried to subpoena Jesus. The Supreme Court ruled him incompetent in 2007—over the protests of then-Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

Percy Levar Walton
Walton, who murdered three people in Virginia in 1996, believed he was Jesus—as well as Superman, a queen bee, “the King of Hearts,” and a caveman. His sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2008.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.