Judicial insanity

February 20, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - May I interrupt the conversation about weapons of mass destruction for just a moment to talk about weapons of individual destruction?

Can we turn our thoughts briefly from the fate of innocent civilians to the fate of convicted criminals? To the times when the logic of law leads, one step at a time, to the lunacy of law?

Such is the case of Charles Laverne Singleton, madman and resident of Arkansas' death row. Earlier this month, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Mr. Singleton could be forcibly medicated in order to make him sane enough to be executed. In a courtroom drama that turned into theater of the absurd, the judges said he must be cured to be killed.

Here are two undisputed facts about Mr. Singleton: (1) He is a murderer, and (2) he is psychotic. Mr. Singleton stabbed a grocery clerk to death in 1979, three years after the Supreme Court re-instituted the death penalty. He descended into raving, delusional mental illness in 1987, a year after the same court ruled that states couldn't execute a crazy person.

In the case of Ford vs. Wainwright, the justices declared it was "cruel and unusual punishment" to execute someone who was mentally incompetent - so incompetent that he didn't understand his fate or the meaning of death or why he was condemned. The decision was welcome but the standard was so low that even Rickey Ray Rector passed the so-called Ford test in 1992 - when Bill Clinton famously came off the campaign trail to authorize his death. Mr. Rector, it should be remembered, went off to his execution, leaving some of his last meal, a piece of pecan pie, to have "later."

Today, the insanity defense is notoriously unsuccessful. But the courts have heard a rash of cases about mental competency, mental illness, medication and legal rights. At this moment, Russell Eugene Weston Jr. is being forcibly medicated so that he can stand trial in the 1998 fatal shooting of two guards in the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the appeal of dentist Charles T. Sell, asking whether it's legal to forcibly medicate a mentally ill man so he can face a civil trial, in this case for Medicaid fraud.

This is an age when mental illness often seems like a matter of chemistry. In the judicial system, there are many reasons to force medication on a delusional defendant: How can an irrational man make rational decisions about his treatment, let alone his trial? There are reasons to worry about it as well: What happens when a defendant comes to court "cured" and the jury sees a "different person" than the one who committed a crime?

Mr. Singleton's case, which will be appealed to the Supreme Court, is part of the chaos and uncertainty and unease swirling around the death penalty.

In the past year, it became unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. But we can still execute juveniles. Attorney General John Ashcroft has ruled 28 times that local district attorneys must pursue the death penalty, against their own judgment, in the name of "consistency."

But leaving office, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted death sentences for 167 inmates, saying, "Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error - error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die."

Much of the controversy over the death penalty is, as it should be, about guilt and innocence and error. But the way we deal with the mentally ill, the incompetent, strikes at the moral heart of the matter.

Mr. Singleton faced a bizarre choice between a lifetime sentence of insanity or the cure of a death sentence. As for those who believe the death penalty can be reasonable and fair? The story of Charles Laverne Singleton has ended that delusion.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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