Do No Harm

Should we medicate to execute?

In 1986, the United States Supreme Court decided Ford v. Wainwright, holding that the execution of the mentally incompetent violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A prisoner cannot be executed unless sufficiently competent to understand the nature and reasons for his punishment. This year, in a six-to-five decision and the first ruling of its kind, the closely divided United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held, in Singleton v. Norris, that a mentally ill prisoner may be involuntarily medicated with antipsychotic drugs to restore his competency for execution. The decision raises acute ethical dilemmas for criminal law and for medical and mental-health professionals who provide treatment for the condemned. Should medical professionals provide necessary mental-health treatment to a condemned prisoner when restoration of competency will likely result in his execution? Does doing so shift their role from that of "healer" to accomplices in the administration of the death penalty?

Charles Singleton was convicted and sentenced to death in Arkansas in 1979 for murder and aggravated robbery. In prison, his mental health began to deteriorate, and Singleton was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. He experienced pervasive paranoid delusions and hallucinations. Singleton believed, for example, that his thoughts were being stolen and that demons filled his cell,...

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About the Author

Kursten Hensl is a student in the program.