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Re-examine use of death penalty

Charles Rice | Tuesday, November 4, 2003

If you favor the death penalty, you have to defend some pretty bizarre results.Before most readers of this column were born, Charles Singleton was sentenced to death in Arkansas in 1979 for murdering Mary Lou York by stabbing her twice in the neck during his robbery of her family’s grocery store. In 1997, Singleton’s claim that he was incompetent, and therefore ineligible for execution was denied because he was voluntarily taking anti-psychotic drugs that made him competent. The State of Arkansas then put him on a mandatory anti-psychotic drug regime on the ground that he was a danger to himself and to others. When the state scheduled his execution in 2000, Singleton claimed that the state could not compel him to take drugs to make him competent enough to be executed.The Supreme Court has forbidden the execution of those who are so incompetent that they “are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” The Court also held that a State may forcibly give anti-psychotic drugs to an inmate “who has a serious mental illness … if the inmate is dangerous to himself or others and the treatment is in the inmate’s medical interest.” Singleton argues that while medication relieves his psychosis it is not in his “ultimate best medical interest” because it would qualify him to be executed.The United States Court of Appeals said that “Singleton presents … a choice between involuntary medication followed by execution and no medication followed by psychosis and imprisonment.” The court upheld the involuntary medication which alleviates his psychosis and has no significant side effects. The State’s compelling interest in punishing criminals, especially in capital cases, outweighed Singleton’s interest and preference. The Supreme Court of the United States denied review; that denial is not a ruling by that Court on the merits of the case.If we have a death penalty this result makes sense. If Singleton were not a capital offender, no one could reasonably deny the State’s right to medicate him involuntarily if necessary to prevent danger to himself and others. Apart from the fact that it would lead to his execution, Singleton himself preferred to be medicated and non-psychotic. He voluntarily took the drugs until his execution date was set. It would reduce the death penalty system to futility if he were able to avoid that penalty by not taking his medicine. Singleton argues that his execution should be stayed until he no longer needs medication to make him competent for execution. In the meantime, he would voluntarily take the drugs.This case illustrates how the death penalty, with its delay, complications and expense, has distorted the justice system. That penalty should be reconsidered. As the Church has always taught, the State, which derives its authority from God, has authority to impose that penalty. But, as John Paul II teaches, the death penalty has outlived its usefulness apart from special cases. It should no longer be used for retribution or deterrence of other potential criminals. As the Catechism states, it may not used unless it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor – i.e., defending them from that criminal. This restriction arises from the importance of the conversion of the criminal. His opportunity for conversion may not be cut off unless absolutely necessary to prevent him from committing more murders. Such cases, at least in advanced penal systems, are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” An inmate under a life sentence who kills another inmate or guard might qualify. Or a system lacking means of secure confinement might use that penalty. And perhaps this teaching, which is offered in the context of “preventing crime,” might not apply to trials in military tribunals for violations of the “laws of war” rather than of domestic criminal laws.In his teachings on the dignity of the person and the sacredness of human life, John Paul II reminds a post-Christian world of basic truths. No one, including the State, ever has a right intentionally to kill the innocent. Even where the State has the right to kill intentionally in the just war and capital punishment, the use of that right in both cases is severely restricted.The forced medication of Singleton to make him lucid enough to kill should give us pause. Why do we have to execute a person like that? The Singleton result fits a culture which in many ways endorses the intentional infliction of death as an optional problem solving technique. Singleton was sentenced to death only a year after Karol Wojtyla became Pope. Singleton’s game is almost over. But the bizarre result in his case should prompt us to question the use of the death penalty and to reflect on the alternative offered by John Paul II.

Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at plawecki.1@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.