Better Justice through Christianity?

By Lypps, Heidi | The Humanist, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Better Justice through Christianity?

Lypps, Heidi, The Humanist

the June 16, 2003, Supreme Court decision in the celebrated forced drugging case of Dr. Charles T. Sell set off a mix of jubilation, confusion, and frustration among both advocates and opponents of involuntary medication. The 6-3 Sell v. United States decision overturned two previous rulings allowing Sell to be forcibly drugged in order to stand trial for sixty-three counts of fraud.

News sources had trouble interpreting the complex decision. While some, like the Christian Science Monitor, trumpeted, "To stand trial, defendants can be medicated by force," others, such as the New York Times, headlined their story "Court Limits Right To Drug Mentally Ill Defendants" with equal vigor.

The central question of Sell was whether the government can drug mentally ill defendants against their will to force them to stand trial. Trying the legally insane is unconstitutional. But what if a defendant could be involuntarily drugged and returned to sanity--is this even possible, let alone legal and ethical?

Sell will be spared the drugs for now, and a stringent new legal test will have to be applied for all future attempts to drug nonviolent defendants for trial. Nonetheless, future defendants may not be as fortunate as Sell. Though the high court upheld the delusional dentist's "liberty interest" in avoiding forced drugging, it stopped short of spelling out the constitutional rights of the accused. Sell is a landmark case to be sure. But what liberty was it, exactly, that the Sell decision protects?

We at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, a civil liberties nonprofit organization that filed a friend of the court brief on Sell's behalf, saw an opportunity for the Court to uphold Sell's freedom of thought as a First Amendment right. Interfering with Sell's brain chemistry is tantamount to mind control--the ultimate restraint on freedom of speech. Instead, the decision primarily acknowledged Sell's liberty interest in avoiding the involuntary administration of antipsychotic drugs, which can cause a host of damaging side effects. Richard Boire, CCLE director and author of the brief, said of the decision, "They made a good ruling, but they missed a major opportunity to recognize that thought is, at least partly, rooted in brain chemistry and that giving the government broad powers to directly manipulate the brain chemistry of a nonviolent citizen would go against our nation's most cherished values."

Sell's Fifth Amendment due process rights were also considered. After all, he did spend five years in jails and psychiatric hospitals without trial. The decision says that to force medication would infringe on Sell's liberty and that the government's "important" interest in bringing him to trial was compromised by Sell's lengthy confinement. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer's majority opinion takes this into account, suggesting that the time Sell has spent in the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners would count as "time served" and noting that Sell has already been incarcerated longer than his maximum sentence for fraud would have required. But the thundering silence of the Court on the issue of a defendant's freedom of thought frustrated those who had urged the Court to hand down a decision protecting the mental autonomy of pretrial defendants.

The case has relevance that reaches far beyond Sell--if the case had been decided against him, any mentally ill person accused of a crime might have been drugged in order to make that person stand trial. Thus the mental autonomy of all citizens was at stake. In the decision, the justices acknowledged the "significant constitutional issues" the case raised but focused on only the Fifth Amendment question--whether the case violated Sell's right to due process of law. CCLE attorney Julie Ruiz-Sierra put it this way, "They're not exactly saying that there's a constitutional right to avoid forced medication; they're saying there is a right not to be forcibly medicated without due process. …

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