Sunday, December 04, 2011

Fit to Be Killed: Manufacturing Synthetic Sanity on Death Row

Perhaps not essential reading for everyone, but a fair reflection on a society preoccupied with killing.

The odds on being declared mentally unfit to stand trial in the US are about a zillion to one, but on the extremely rare occasion that it does occur, it would appear prosecutors can't live with the notion or the situation.

Psychiatric Medication

It’s only got one side effect

You really must give it a try,

It’s only got one side effect,

It makes you want to die.

Carol Batton.

Fit to Be Killed: Manufacturing Synthetic Sanity on Death Row
by Robert Wilbur
3 December 2011

The gun smoke had barely cleared - leaving six dead and 13 wounded, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had a hole in her head - before federal prosecutors took the first step in hustling the shooter, Jared Lee Laughner, to the death gurney.

Attempting to assassinate a member of Congress is a capital offense, and one of the dead was a federal judge, making Laughner's target practice a second federal capital offense.

Never mind that Laughner had a long history of mental illness; the federal death penalty law allows for a very limited insanity defense, so Laughner's prospects of living to old age might seem dim. Except that his lawyer is Judy Clarke.

Colleagues, writing in posts on the Internet, widely regard Clarke as the best death penalty defense lawyer in the business. She successfully cut a deal with prosecutors to spare the life of the Unabomber, and she successfully kept Susan Smith, the Alabama mom who drowned her two toddlers in the bath tub, off the death gurney. Colleagues say that Clarke is not just philosophically opposed to the death penalty; for her, it is a driving passion.

The first step in Laughner's journey through the legal system was a competency hearing, where the judge weighed testimony from a defense psychiatrist and a prosecution forensic psychologist. Unlike many such hearings, where the experts tailor their testimony to the needs of their legal team, both the defense and prosecution experts agreed that Laughner was a paranoid schizophrenic who was incompetent to stand trial - meaning that he was too crazy to participate in his own defense. The judge remanded Laughner to a federal forensic hospital for months of observation.

Laughner's mental status did not improve - which is hardly surprising since he's been schizophrenic for years - so the docs sought to medicate him. Clarke exploded and sprang like a panther with a string of objections ... Unlike many high-profile lawyers, Clarke does not talk to the press - including Truthout. But her objections to forcibly medicating Laughner with antipsychotic drugs are obvious: they would, first, render him competent to stand trial; and second, lead him down a road that will end not with an injection of an antipsychotic, but rather a lethal cocktail of pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - which passes for humane execution in the United States.

But can the states or the federal government medicate a person against his or her will? The Supreme Court has ruled that prison docs can forcibly medicate a mentally ill inmate if he "poses a threat to himself or others" or if the medication is in his own best interest. Clearly, a defense lawyer will argue that the purpose of medicating a person in a capital case is not to provide medical care, but to create a state that has been called "synthetic sanity" - a condition of pseudo-sanity that can be palmed off as competency.

Clarke is sure to capitalize on the niche in this ruling, because it's hardly in Laughner's best interest to medicate him so that he can stand trial for his life. It is questionable whether antipsychotic drugs enable the defendant to help his lawyer in an insanity defense. Many psychiatrists feel that these drugs do not attack the core of the illness, but rather make the patient think, act and look "doped up," without addressing the underlying pathological processes. more


Anonymous said...

"Ultimately, however, there is only one definitive solution to practices like creating synthetic sanity: to abolish the benighted practice of capital punishment once and for all."

Anonymous said...

Himself said...


Thank you.