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In an irresponsible failure to defend the rights of the insane, the United States Supreme Court has consented by inaction to let states make mentally incompetent convicts take antipsychotic drugs so they will be sane enough to be executed. Last Monday, on its first day of session, the Court chose to let stand a federal appeals court ruling that Charles L. Singleton, who was sentenced to death in Arkansas for a 1979 murder and later became insane, could be forced to take medication, restoring his sanity and making him eligible for execution.
As this is the first case of this kind to come before an appellate court, the Supreme Court set a tasteless precedent for evading the moral and legal canons that forbid executing the insane. The number of mentally deranged convicts that can now be killed will be limited only by the effectiveness of the drugs that they can be made to take against their will. The very thought of promoting the use of the fruits of medical research for the facilitation and legitimization the destruction of life—besides being an utterly illogical proposition—should revolt even the least sensitive among us. It should also nauseate the entire medical profession. Applying medicine to ultimately enable the death of a patient flies in the face of the Hippocratic oath, and that prisons may have to resort to non-medical staff to administer the drugs should come as a loud warning sign that the ruling is unsound.
The Supreme Court’s passive endorsement of this sickening practice goes beyond its usual barbaric support for capital punishment. It serves as a tacit signal to death penalty hawks that it’s okay to develop calculated loopholes to traditional restrictions. And it is a silent nod of approval for a conception of the death penalty as an end in itself and as the cornerstone of a warped moral framework in which justice remains undone so long as the wrongdoer breathes.
But the particular circumstances of Singleton’s case should not obscure the Supreme Court’s fundamental misinterpretation of the Eighth Amendment. Capital punishment is cruel and unusual by modern standards, and no Court fully committed to upholding the Constitution can find a place for it in our country. The Supreme Court did not only disgrace its bench by failing to protect the mentally insane from execution, but indeed disgraces it every time the Court refuses to eradicate execution altogether.
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