The New Zealand Herald, Feb. 13, 2003
By RUPERT CORNWELL in Washington
A United States federal appeals court has ruled that a mentally ill death row inmate can be forcibly treated with anti-psychotic drugs to make him sane enough to be legally executed.
In a 6-5 vote, the Eighth Circuit court in St Louis found that “involuntary medication followed by execution” was “a better choice” than withholding drugs, followed by psychosis and imprisonment.
The ruling is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1986 barred the execution of insane prisoners.
Charles Singleton was convicted of killing an Arkansas grocery store worker in 1979. He has been on death row ever since.
His mental health began to worsen and in 1987 he came to believe his cell was inhabited by demons and that a prison doctor had implanted a device in his ear. Singleton has since been given anti-psychosis drugs, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force.
The hearings in St Louis produced almost surreal exchanges, with Arkansas prison officials arguing that Singleton had to be medicated to prevent him being a danger to himself and to others.
But his lawyer said forcible medication became illegal once an execution date was set as it was no longer in his ultimate medical interest. The defence also argued that without drugs, the prisoner could not understand his punishment.
One dissenting judge wrote in a minority opinion: “Receiving treatment is not the same as being cured. Drug-induced sanity is not the same as real sanity.”
The judge acknowledged that doctors treating a mentally ill inmate faced an untenable choice between making him or her fit for execution, or withholding treatment and condemning the prisoner to Singleton’s life of hallucination and delusions.
For foes of the death penalty, the answer is simple: abolish it for all prisoners in this situation.
The American Medical Association agrees, holding it unethical for a doctor to give treatment that makes someone competent to be put to death. To what extent, one specialist asked, “can a government take invasive, involuntary action using medical personnel who are sworn to save life” when the result is the patient’s execution?
In October 2001, a panel of the 8th Circuit ruled that Singleton be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The state appealed, and the court has now reversed that decision.
But Singleton’s lawyer, Jeff Rosenzweig, asked: “What is the power of the state to give medical treatment that has the effect of causing his execution? You should forbid execution under those circumstances.”
The Death Penalty Information Centre contends that 44 mentally retarded people were executed between 1976 and last year.
In one instance, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas left the 1992 presidential campaign to fly home for the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a murderer who shot away part of his brain in a suicide attempt after he had shot and killed a police officer.
Rector was so brain-damaged, his lawyers said, that he asked that his pecan pie be put aside for him to eat as a snack after his execution.
Clinton rejected his final appeal for clemency.