Indicted in the killing of two Capitol Police officers, Russell Weston Jr. has spent the past six years in federal custody.
But whenever Weston appears in court, garbed in dull-color jumpsuits and seated in a wheelchair, the discussion rarely touches on the July 24, 1998, incident that led to Weston’s arrest: the shooting deaths of Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson.
Instead, the argument focuses on forced medication and the court order that has required Weston, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, to take anti-psychotic drugs since January 2002.
Just last week, federal prosecutors won their fourth extension of that order — in the hope that medical treatment could eventually render Weston competent to stand trial.
But should a treated Weston proceed to criminal trial, several legal scholars interviewed by Roll Call suggested that the case could face an issue currently unresolved in the courts: whether it is permissible to forcibly medicate someone for the purpose of execution.
“It an open question in the United States Supreme Court,” said John Carroll, dean of Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.
In the 1986 ruling Ford vs. Wainright, the Supreme Court banned the execution of those deemed mentally insane, although the court allowed states to set guidelines for interpreting that decision.
“Ford in a way became a template for the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with a class of death-penalty issues,” noted Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello. “They recognize a right, but leave it to the states to define the content of that right.”
In response, many states have set standards similar to those used to determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial — rules that typically require a defendant to understand the proceedings and to be able to adequately assist in his own defense. Only if those conditions are met can an inmate be subject to execution.
“If someone is so mentally ill as to be incompetent or insane, they can’t be executed,” explained Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. (Because existing guidelines typically allow people with “some connection to reality” to be executed, Dieter added, only a handful of death-row inmates have received reprieves as a result of the Ford ruling.)
The Ford decision did not address whether inmates could be forcibly medicated in order to render them competent for execution — an issue that could be included in any potential Weston trial.
“It is a tough ethical and legal question,” Dieter said.
For example, according to American University Law Professor Bob Dinerstein, the issue of medicating a person to prepare them for execution could potentially violate medical ethics codes.
“It’s a little hard to say there’s a benefit to the patient by giving him the medication … [that] also makes him eligible for the death penalty,” Dinerstein said.
Several scholars, including Dieter, said the most relevant case to date involved Arkansan inmate Charles Singleton, sentenced to death in 1979 for the murder of a storekeeper during a robbery.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Singleton could be forcibly medicated for the purpose of execution. The state executed Singleton in January after the U.S. Supreme Court declined the case.
Despite the lack of clarity in death-penalty law, both Carroll and Dieter note that the Supreme Court has laid out directives that cover forced medication during trials and incarceration.
Should the Weston case proceed to trial, Carroll, a former U.S. magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, said Weston could be required to continue taking medication, citing a 2003 Supreme Court decision in Sell v. United States.
That case involved Missouri dentist Charles Sell, who faced Medicaid fraud and other charges. The court ruled that defendants could be medicated — although it set forth strict conditions under which forced medication could occur.
“It’s clear based on Sell that you can forcibly medicate someone to stand trial,” Carroll said. Although that case involved a nonviolent offense, Weston’s attorney has cited it in opposing the medication of his client.
Under a separate decision issued in 1990, in Washington v. Harper, Carroll said, the court allowed for the involuntary medication of inmates who demonstrate they are a danger to themselves or others while incarcerated.