Monday, September 17, 2007

Star-Telegram Editorial on Steven Staley

Here's an editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (September 15, 2007) regarding the case of death row inmate Steven Staley, who is being force to take medication for his schizophrenia:

Cruel and unusual?

"There's no denying that the 1989 slaying of restaurant manager Robert Read by a pair of scofflaws fleeing a botched robbery was unnecessary and heartless.

That doesn't diminish the state's responsibility to make sure it is acting humanely in carrying out the punishment for one of those killers, Steven Kenneth Staley.

Asked to weigh disturbingly conflicting interests in Staley's case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals essentially punted on Sept. 12. The judges decided only that they didn't have jurisdiction to rule on whether a trial judge's order violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

State District Judge Wayne Salvant in Fort Worth had ordered the state to forcibly give Staley anti-psychotic drugs if he wouldn't take them voluntarily. Staley, who has been diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia, says he believes the drugs poison him and won't take them.

But state officials want him medicated so he'll be competent enough to be executed. A Tarrant County jury voted in 1991 that he should get the death penalty for shooting Read after trying to rob a Steak & Ale in west Fort Worth. Two accomplices received long prison sentences.

In a brief opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed only whether procedural law permits an appeal of Salvant's order.

But this case isn't about proper procedure. It's about fundamental concepts about justice and what the Constitution allows. Staley was lucid when he committed the crime, but his mental health has deteriorated so much that he can be made competent only temporarily and by artificial means.

What, then, can and should the state do?

The U.S. Supreme Court has read the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to bar states from executing mentally ill inmates who don't understand the reasons they are receiving the death penalty. In another context, though, the court has said that prisons can force medication oninmates who are dangerous to themselves or others.

Salvant concluded that treating Staley, whose symptoms are alleviated by psychotropic drugs, would be in his best medical interests. But Staley's lawyers argue that forcing him to take drugs with serious side effects is not only cruel but violates his privacy. And the state has a basic motive beyond Staley's health: his death.

The justice system depends on jury verdicts being carried out unless they are unfair, unjustified or somehow tainted. But even death sentences have been commuted when circumstances warrant it. In this case, it apparently will be up to a federal court to decide what the Constitution demands.

Staley deserves punishment for a brutal crime. But if the state must forcibly drug him to achieve that, then Texans must ask themselves whether another indecent act is being committed and whether the real aims of justice are being served."

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