Monday, July 28, 2008

PA Death Row Inmates Can Be Forcibly Medicated

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that two death row inmates with mental illness can be forcibly medicated in order to render them competent to continue their appeals and face execution.

Texas courts have addressed this issue in the case of death row inmate
Steven Staley, who has been diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia and believes that he is being poisoned by medication. A state district judge ordered the state to forcibly give Staley anti-psychotic drugs. Last fall, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on whether this constituted cruel and unusual punishment and and took no action on the case. As far as I am aware, Staley remains in prison and on medication.

Here's the story from the Philadelphia Inquirer ("PA high court OKs forced drugging of mentally ill death-row inmates," July 23, 2008):

"Ruling in the case of Thavirak Sam, a Cambodian immigrant who killed three family members in 1989 and has been mentally incompetent for years, the court said that if Sam were left untreated, his appeal would remain in limbo indefinitely.

'Not to litigate the claims delays both justice and finality,' wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who was Philadelphia district attorney when the killings occurred.

Sam's defense attorney, Jules Epstein, said he believed the rulings marked the first time in the United States that an appellate court had approved forcible medication for a death-row inmate who is not a danger to himself or others.

'The decision raises a profound question of what to do with mentally ill death-row inmates . . . who have no family or other dedicated person to speak for them,' said Epstein, a law professor at Widener University.

Deputy District Attorney Ronald E. Eisenberg said the rulings would allow appeals to proceed.

'This way, at least there will be a decision one way or another about the validity of the conviction and sentence,' he said.

The issue is important because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that convicted murderers cannot be executed if they are so mentally ill that they cannot understand why they face a death sentence and what that sentence means.

Sam, now 51, has been on death row since 1991, and prosecutors have been trying for several years to get him medicated so he can be competent enough to decide whether he wants to continue his appeal or be put to death.

At varying points over the years, Sam has imagined that the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered him freed and that a Cambodian prince had interceded on his behalf.

In another Philadelphia case, the high court also ruled that Herbert Watson, convicted in 1983 of shooting to death his estranged girlfriend, must be medicated to determine whether he wants to proceed with his appeal.

Castille wrote in that case that prosecutors were 'attempting to vindicate society's compelling interest in bringing an end to the litigation of this case, which is now well into its third decade.'

In both cases, Castille was joined by Justices Thomas Saylor, J. Michael Eakin and Seamus McCaffery. Justices Max Baer and Debra Todd dissented. ..."

Earlier posts on Steven Staley are available here and here.

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