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Appeals court stays execution of schizophrenic Florida man

Florida Department of Corrections via AP

John Errol Ferguson has been on Florida's death row for 34 years.

An 11th hour decision by a federal appeals court has blocked the scheduled execution of a mass killer convicted of eight slayings that jolted South Florida in the 1970s.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a last-minute request Tuesday night from attorneys for 64-year-old John Errol Ferguson, who has been on Florida's death row for 34 years. Ferguson's lawyers contend he should not be executed because he suffers from severe mental illness.

He was scheduled to die at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. His last meal, according to the Miami Herald, was a chicken country fried sandwich and sweet tea.

Florida officials immediately asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay. The justices earlier Tuesday turned aside another Ferguson appeal.

Ferguson was convicted of killing eight people in South Florida in 1977 and 1978, including a teenage couple, and was a prime suspect in another double slaying. He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia but has previously been ruled competent for execution.

His lawyers say he believes he is the "Prince of God," according to the Miami Herald, to bolster their case that he is too mentally ill to be executed.

Phil Sears / AP

Death penalty opponents join in a chant across from Florida State Prison in Raiford, Fla. on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that inmates who suffer from "mental retardation" are exempt from the death penalty. According to the high court:

Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others’ reactions.

Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.

NBC's Isolde Raftery contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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