WASHINGTON — LIFE IN Louisiana has long been a source of inspiration to authors with a taste for the grotesque, like Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and Walker Percy. Now it has produced a tale too surreal for any of them. If it were fiction, this one might have originated with George Orwell or Franz Kafka or, more likely, Joseph Heller.
The case of Michael Owen Perry is weird but not as political as Orwell's "1984." It is at least as depressing as Kafka's "The Trial," but in this case the defendant knows, in his lucid moments, why he is condemned. The match is much closer to Mr. Heller's "Catch-22," in which World War II bombardier Yossarian tries to get out of more combat missions by faking insanity and is frustrated by the squadron doctor's special logic.
"Can't you ground someone who's crazy?" Yossarian asks. "Oh sure," says the doc, "There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy." "Then why don't you ground me?" Yossarian insists -- "I'm crazy."
There's a catch, the doc tells him: "Catch-22, Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
We could laugh at "Catch-22" when it first burst into print in 1955. it's harder to laugh at its modern Louisiana parallel because it only seems to have been dreamed up in somebody's sick imagination.
To begin with, Michael Perry is not a sympathetic character. He has been convicted of murdering his parents, two cousins and a 2-year-old nephew. He had a background of mental illness. Before his trial, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but then withdrew it and was found competent to face trial.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but afterward ruled not sane enough to be executed. (The Supreme Court decided four years ago that to execute the insane is cruel and unusual punishment.)
Doctors found Perry psychotic; sometimes he believes he is God, and has hallucinations. But Louisiana prison authorities maintain that under medication, he becomes sane enough to be executed. So a judge there ordered that he be injected with this medicine against his will, to make him eligible to be killed by the state.
Citing the 1986 cruel-and-unusual-punishment ruling, Perry -or anyhow his lawyers - appealed that state court order. This week the Supreme Court set aside the state decision, telling Louisiana to reconsider it in view of a 1989 high court ruling on forcibly administering medicine to mentally ill prisoners.
That ruling said physicians could do so only when a prisoner is dangerous either to himself or to others, and the treatment is in his medical interest. Naturally, Perry's lawyers argue that giving him medicine is not in his medical interest, since it is specifically meant to prepare him for death. But the state contends that Perry lost all his rights to refuse medication when he was sentenced to death. Besides, it adds, his conviction for murder demonstrates that he is dangerous to others.
As I say, it is not a laughable situation. But not for nothing did I suggest above that Perry's lawyers could have appealed his case with-out his asking. After all, if Perry requested the appeal, he did so for the express purpose of saving his own life. On the chance that somebody on the prosecution side may have read "Catch 22," his lawyers might even be smart to assert that they are carrying on his case over his objections.
Suppose he insisted that they push their appeal. Wouldn't that would be evidence of sanity? Suppose prison officials gave him the medicine while he was sleeping. Would they then execute him straight off, or would they test his sanity first? Suppose they slipped him the medicine and then asked him who he was, and he said "God." Would that mean the medicine didn't work, or that it did work and made him sane enough to try to save his own life?
How could they tell?
At the end of Chapter 10 of "Catch 22," Dr. Stubbs says of Yossarian, "That crazy bastard." His friend says, "He's not so crazy. He swears he's not going to fly . . ."
"That's just what I mean," the doc answers. "That crazy bastard may be the only sane one left."