Judges can’t order forcible medication of mentally ill inmate, court rules

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that state District Judge Wayne Salvant did not have the authority to order prison officials to forcibly medicate a mentally ill Death Row inmate from Tarrant County for the purpose of making him competent for execution.

And without medication, the judges said, inmate Steven Staley is not competent to be executed.

“We hold that the evidence conclusively shows that appellant’s competency to be executed was achieved solely through the involuntary medication, which the trial court had no authority to order under the competency-to-be-executed statute,” Judge Elsa Alcala wrote in the majority opinion.

The judges did not answer the question of whether it is constitutional to medicate mentally ill inmates to make them competent for execution. The 5-4 ruling focused on a judge’s authority to order forcible medication.

Chuck Mallin, appellate division chief for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said Wednesday that prosecutors felt obligated to enforce the court’s order that Staley be executed and to prevent other inmates from refusing to take medication to avoid the sentence they received.

If a court cannot enforce its own orders, then its orders are worthless, Mallin said.

“One would think the institution has the authority and power to forcibly medicate an inmate,” he said. “It’s likely we will file a motion for a rehearing, but that has not been decided. We’re still reviewing the opinion and trying to determine what remedy we’ll pursue.”

Staley’s case has been up and down the appeals ladder since he was sentenced to death in 1991 for fatally shooting Robert Read, a manager at a Steak and Ale restaurant in Fort Worth, in 1989.

No one questions that Staley is a paranoid schizophrenic who has severe delusions when not taking medication. Jail and prison staffers have reported finding Staley in his cell covered with feces and urine. He has hurt himself by banging his head against walls, and he has lain catatonic for so long that he wore a bald spot into the back of his head.

“He believes there is a big conspiracy orchestrated by the state and that everybody, everybody, is part of the conspiracy,” his attorney, John Stickels, said at a hearing in May 2012. “He believes that he was wrongfully convicted because of the conspiracy.”

He refuses to take medication because he believes that doctors are poisoning him, his attorneys have said.

They have argued for years that forcibly medicating Staley to make him comprehend that he was being executed would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that forcible medication is appropriate if it’s likely to make the condemned inmate competent, if the side effects wouldn’t be worse than the benefits and if it’s in the prisoner’s best medical interests. The Supreme Court hasn’t addressed the issue.

At least twice before, Texas’ highest criminal appeals court refused to stay Salvant’s order that prison staff forcibly give Staley psychotropic drugs.

Tarrant County prosecutors argued that Staley needed to be medicated not solely for the purpose of competency for execution but also to protect him from his own frightening delusions and psychosis.

Fort Worth attorney Jack Strickland represented Staley from 1999 until 2010, when he joined the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. He declined to comment Wednesday, saying he had not read the opinion.

Multiple appeals

In 2005, the criminal appeals court stayed Staley’s first execution date to give Strickland time to prepare a case that he was mentally incompetent for execution. Salvant later set a new execution date but rescinded it in February 2006.

Staley was brought back to Tarrant County for a hearing before Salvant. The judge ruled that Staley should be forcibly medicated, saying it was in his best interest to prevent delusions and reduce the threat he posed to himself. Also, he wrote, “This Court finds that the State has an essential interest in ensuring that the sentence of this Court is carried out.”

Two months later, after Strickland appealed Salvant’s order to the criminal appeals court, those judges refused to stay the order. They did not issue an opinion. Strickland appealed again. In September 2007, the court unanimously refused to overturn Salvant’s order.

Salvant later set a new execution date in May 2012. But a few days before the date, the criminal appeals court stayed the execution to give the arguments in the case more consideration. Wednesday’s ruling was the response.

High cost of appeals

Meg Penrose, a professor at Texas A&M University Law School, said Wednesday’s ruling was close but was not extraordinary. The court looked at what Salvant did, applied the law and found that he went too far, said Penrose, who represents Death Row inmates from Dallas County.

Perhaps the most humane and cost-effective solution would be to reduce Staley’s sentence to life in prison, Penrose said.

If Tarrant County prosecutors ask for a rehearing and are turned down, the case will move to the federal level, where two lawyers are required to represent Staley at every step, Penrose said.

“The Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason he is being executed,” she said. “What Tarrant County is saying is, ‘We want to execute someone who is legally incompetent.’

“This is taxpayer dollars that we are all expending, and I find that problematic. Just think of what could be done for the mentally ill in prison and jail if they had an extra $300,000 to work with.”

Stickels, Staley’s current attorney, has also argued that Staley’s IQ of 70 — considered the threshold for mental impairment — could disqualify him from the punishment. In 2002, the Supreme Court barred execution of mentally impaired people.

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association consider it ethically unacceptable for doctors to provide treatments to patients when the purpose is execution. And state supreme courts in Louisiana and South Carolina have ruled that forcibly medicating patients so they can be executed violates those states’ constitutions.

Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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