Stephen O’Malley

American justice: pills, frychair.

Posted: Oct 7, 2003

Court Begins New Term by Letting State Authority Expand


Published: October 6, 2003

WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 — The Supreme Court today let stand a ruling by a federal appeals court that Arkansas officials may force a convicted murderer to take drugs to make him sane enough to be executed.

... The court opened its fall term this morning by listing dozens of cases from lower courts that the justices had reviewed over their summer recess and chose not to reconsider. Although they did not rule directly on the Arkansas and South Carolina cases, both represent an acceptance of expansions of state authority.

In the Arkansas case, the appeals court based in St. Louis had ruled, 6 to 5, that the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment would not be violated if the authorities forcibly administered antipsychotic medication to the inmate, Charles Laverne Singleton.

The appeals court rejected arguments by Mr. Singleton's lawyers that giving him the drugs was not medically useful to him, as the only purpose would be to facilitate the ending of his life.

The Supreme Court ruled in a pair of cases in 1986 that executing the insane was prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's edict against cruel and unusual punishment. In one of the cases, Justice Lewis F. Powell set out the standard, saying that "the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it."

But until the Singleton case, no appeals court nor the Supreme Court, had ruled on whether a prisoner may be forcibly medicated in order to be made sane enough to be executed.

Mr. Singleton killed a grocery clerk in Arkansas in 1979 and was sentenced to death that year. His mental health began to deteriorate in 1987; he said he believed his prison cell was possessed by demons and that the authorities had planted a device in his ear. He insisted that his victim, whom he had known at the time of the murder, was still alive.

The appeals court judges were in sharp disagreement over what should be done when they ruled in February. Judge Roger L. Wollman, writing for the majority, said that the court had a choice "between involuntary medication followed by execution and no medication followed by psychosis and imprisonment."

Judge Wollman went to some lengths to note that Mr. Singleton's guilt was not in doubt, even though the issue was not before the court.

Judge Gerald W. Heaney, in dissent, said the authorities should have allowed the prisoner to be medicated without the consequence of execution. "I believe that to execute a man who is severely deranged without treatment, and arguably incompetent when treated, is the pinnacle of what Justice Marshall called `the barbarity of exacting mindless vengeance.' "

Scholars in medical ethics have said the notion of medicating people to improve their mental health to the point where they may be executed can present formidable obstacles for doctors. In practice, that could mean allowing nonmedical personnel to administer the drugs.