Allows Forcible Drugging of an Inmate Before Execution
Neil A. Lewis
The New York Times
October 7, 2003
6 — The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling by a
federal appeals court allowing Arkansas officials to force a convicted
murderer to take drugs that would make him sane enough to be executed.
The justices opened
their fall term by listing dozens of cases decided by lower courts
that they reviewed during the summer recess and chose not to reconsider.
In addition to the Arkansas case, they let stand a ruling by the
South Carolina Supreme Court upholding a murder conviction for
a woman who used crack cocaine and then delivered a stillborn
Though the justices
did not rule directly on the cases, both represent the court's
acceptance of significant extensions of state authority. In the
Arkansas case, the appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals
for the Eighth Circuit, based in St. Louis, had ruled 6 to 5 that
the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment
would not be violated if the authorities forcibly administered
antipsychotic medication to the convicted murderer, Charles Laverne
The appeals court
rejected arguments by Mr. Singleton's lawyers that the drugs were
not medically useful since their only purpose would be to facilitate
In two 1986 cases,
the Supreme Court ruled that executing the insane was prohibited
by the Eighth Amendment's edict against cruel and unusual punishment.
In one of the cases, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. set out the standard,
saying that "the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only
of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer
and why they are to suffer it."
Until the Singleton
case, no appellate court nor the Supreme Court had ruled on whether
a prisoner could be forcibly medicated to be made sane enough
to qualify for an execution.
Mr. Singleton killed
a grocery clerk in Arkansas in 1979 and was sentenced to death
that year. His mental health began to deteriorate in 1987; he
said he believed his prison cell was possessed by demons and that
the authorities had planted a device in his ear. He insisted that
his victim, whom he had known at the time of the murder, was still
The appellate judges
were in sharp disagreement when they ruled in February. Writing
for the majority, Judge Roger L. Wollman said the court had a
choice "between involuntary medication followed by execution
and no medication followed by psychosis and imprisonment."
In dissent, Judge
Gerald W. Heaney said the authorities should have allowed Mr.
Singleton to be medicated without the consequence of execution.
"I believe that to execute a man who is severely deranged
without treatment, and arguably incompetent when treated, is the
pinnacle of what Justice Marshall called `the barbarity of exacting
mindless vengeance.' "
Scholars in medical
ethics have said the issue of medicating patients to improve their
mental health to execute them might present formidable obstacles
for doctors. In practice, that could mean allowing nonmedical
personnel to administer such treatments. The case is Charles L.
Singleton v. Norris (02-10605).
In the South Carolina
case, the Supreme Court's decision to let stand the murder conviction
of the mother after her baby was delivered stillborn was of special
note in the state. Officials there have been especially determined
to make pregnant women responsible for their behavior.
The South Carolina
Supreme Court first upheld in 1997 the state's practice of regarding
a fetus as a person in connection with the prosecution of pregnant
women who used drugs.
The current case
involved Regina McKnight, described in court documents as a woman
of markedly low intelligence who until 1998 was helped with her
everyday needs by her mother. Her lawyers said that after her
mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident, Ms. McKnight "quickly
spiraled downward, becoming homeless, addicted to cocaine and
marijuana — and pregnant."
After she delivered
a stillborn female, nurses took blood samples from her and the
baby and sent them to the authorities under a procedure put in
place by the state. Both tested positive for cocaine.
The state had previously
prosecuted women for abuse if their delivered babies showed traces
of cocaine, but Ms. McKnight's was the first drug-related case
to be tried and convicted for murder under a "homicide by
The law under which
she was convicted carries up to a 20-year prison term; she was
sentenced to 12 years in jail. The case is Regina D. McKnight
v. South Carolina (02-1741).
The court also let
stand a ruling that a Chicago ban on peddling outside a sports
arena violated free-speech rights.
Without any comment,
the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Chicago defending its
law that prohibits peddling on public sidewalks in certain areas
of the city. The law states that "no person shall peddle
merchandise of any type on any portion of the public way within
1,000 feet of the United Center," an arena that features
professional basketball and hockey games as well as other major
events. The case is City of Chicago v. Mark G. Weinberg (02-1710).
The court also threw
out large punitive damage awards against two major businesses,
Philip Morris USA and Chrysler, asking lower courts to reconsider
the amounts in light of a case the justices decided in April.
In that case, the court provided the business community a significant
victory when it threw out a $145 million damage award against
the State Farm Insurance Company. Since the award for actual damages
was only $1 million, a majority of justices said the 145-to-1
ratio for damages was excessive and suggested that juries considering
punitive damage awards should not be permitted to consider a company's
The Philip Morris
case concerned an Oregon janitor whose descendants sued the cigarette
maker and won $79.5 million in punitive damages, 97 times the
actual damages awarded. The case is Philip Morris USA v. Williams,
et al. (02-1553).
The case involving
Chrysler concerned a Kentucky widow who was awarded $3 million
in punitive damages for a truck accident that killed her husband,
about 13 times the actual damages awarded. The case is Chrysler
Corp. v. Dorothy Clark (02-1748).
The court also refused
to consider the conviction of Ramsi Yousef, identified as the
mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The case is
Ramsi Yousef v. U.S. (03-5976).