The Cautionary Instruction: Forced drugging of death row inmates

Friday, 27 September 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20130927wap stevenstaley 150Imagine a delusional, psychotic inmate on death row being forced to take medication so that he becomes lucid enough to execute. Does such a scenario seem cruel or farfetched? Not so fast, it is the law in Pennsylvania and other states as well.

In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that Arkansas could force a prisoner on death row to take antipsychotic medication to make him sane enough to execute. Without the drugs Charles Laverne Singleton, could not be put to death. A 1986 Supreme Court decision prohibited the execution of the insane.

''Singleton presents the court with a choice between involuntary medication followed by an execution and no medication followed by psychosis and imprisonment,'' Judge Roger L. Wollman wrote in his anything but compassionate opinion.

Judge Wollman said the first choice was the better one, at least when the drugs were generally beneficial to the prisoner. ''Eligibility for execution is the only unwanted consequence of the medication,'' he wrote. That unwanted consequence was soon realized, Singleton was executed in 2004.

In 2008, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state can force two death row inmates to take antipsychotic medication so they are mentally competent enough to proceed with their appeals and be executed. The decision was not as dire as it might seem. Pennsylvania has not executed anyone involuntarily in the modern era of the death penalty.

The two Pennsylvania inmates were sentenced to death but were found incompetent to participate in the appeals filed on their behalf. The Supreme Court ordered “that appellee be administered, involuntarily if necessary, antipsychotic medication to render him competent.”

Justice Max Baer dissented, saying that each defendant, “has as much of an interest in avoiding an unwanted and forced drugging as he has in pursuing collateral relief.” It appears that Justice Baer understood that the issue was more about appearing in court than showing up in the death chamber.

Ironically, it took Texas, the state that has executed more killers than any other, to make a sensible decision in the area of mental illness and execution.

In a recent 5-4 decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that death row inmate Steven Kenneth Staley cannot be forcibly medicated to become competent for execution.

He was convicted of capital murder in 1991 for a killing during a robbery. An execution date was originally set for February 2006. The trial court conducted two separate hearings on whether Staley was competent to be executed before the matter got to the appeals court.

"We conclude that the trial court lacked the authority to order the involuntary medication of appellant and that the competency finding must be reversed because that determination is wholly dependent on that unauthorized involuntary medication of appellant," Judge Elsa Alcala wrote for the majority.

(Image: File photo of Texas death row inmate Steven Staley.  AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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