The unicorn" he said "ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him, coldly. "You are a booby" she said, "and I am going to have you put in a booby-hatch."
— James Thurber, "The Unicorn in the Garden"
We are constantly reminded of the fact that we live in a civilized society that enthusiastically embraces the restorative powers of the death penalty for a society sometimes seemingly overcome by violence. The important thing is not that we recognize its ability to make the U.S. a better place in which to live, but that we use it in a socially responsible way. And so we do.
Consider Texas's own Greg Long, who attempted suicide on Friday, was placed on a ventilator in Galveston on Saturday, pronounced able to travel on Monday, flown to the place of execution on Tuesday with medical personnel and executed on Wednesday. It was all very orderly. Everyone was pleased at the outcome except, perhaps, Mr. Long, who probably would rather have died the preceding Friday, since not much of amusement happened during the final five days of his life.
Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision announced during the week of June 14, we may have been given an insight into how the court is apt to rule in the Charles Singleton death-penalty case that is slowly working its way upwards (although the case which offers guidance is not a death penalty case.)
Mr. Singleton is a death-row inmate in Arkansas who found life on death row so depressing that at present examining doctors all agree he is insane. That poses a very real problem for the would-be executioners since, in a 1986 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said executing the insane constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment and is prohibited. As a result, Arkansas has had to figure out how to get rid of Mr. Singleton without running afoul of the court's restriction. It didn't want to keep him incarcerated forever nor did it want to let him go. It came up with an answer that was as creative as it was innovative. It decided to give him medicine so that he would become sufficiently healthy so that his execution would not be considered inhumane.
Mr. Singleton's attorneys were not as impressed with the state's creativity as was the state. They went to court saying he should not be forcibly medicated. The first court to hear arguments agreed that curing someone in order to kill him made little sense. The next court, however, saw the more humane side of the state's approach. The judge who wrote the opinion observed that the only bad side effect of the drug the state proposed to administer was that it would make him sufficiently healthy so that he could be killed. He said Mr. Singleton should be medicated. To no one's great surprise, the case is now heading for the U.S. Supreme Court, and thanks to the recent decision referred to above, we have at least a hint of what may happen. It may not bode as well for Mr. Singleton as he may have hoped upon first learning of the court's ruling.
Charles Sell is a St. Louis dentist who did the sorts of things large corporations do every day and for which they are rarely punished. He committed fraud. The government wants to try him for his actions. Unfortunately, Dr. Sell is not well. He has been found to have "delusional disorder, persecutory type" and believes that federal agents, particularly those of the FBI, are conspiring against him. (At one time he called authorities claiming, in Thurber-like manner, that there was a leopard outside his office boarding a bus and asked the police to come shoot it.)
The U.S. Supreme Court was asked whether Dr. Sell could be forcibly medicated in order to enable him to stand trial. It concluded that he could not. The court said Dr. Sell has a "liberty interest" in avoiding unwanted antipsychotic medication. It said that the use of antipsychotic drugs must be in the defendant's best medical interest and "substantially unlikely" to cause side effects that would compromise the fairness of the trial.
The question constitutional scholars ask themselves when examining a case like this is what it portends for Mr. Singleton. I have an answer: Nothing good. One of the things that impressed the court in Dr. Sell's case is that by the time his appeal was heard, he had already spent more time in jail than he would have had he simply gone to trial and been convicted and sentenced. The court was also impressed that by the time of the trial, if it takes place, "he will have undergone forced medication — the very harm that he seeks to avoid" and that he would suffer the consequences of the unwanted medication for the rest of his life, a life the state has no intention of taking, given the relatively minor transgression with which he is charged.
Mr. Singleton should not pin his hopes on Dr. Sell. Mr. Singleton wants to avoid the medication to avoid being executed. Although he may argue that forcing him to take the drugs is not in his best medical interest since it will quickly result in his death, that argument is unlikely to get him very far. In the unlikely event there are side effects other than qualifying him for death, those side effects will last only as long as Mr. Singleton. A compassionate system will make sure that just as soon as he's well, he'll be killed, thus putting to rest both Mr. Singleton and that particular concern.
Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera