Capital punishment has always made me
uneasy. The idea of the state basing a law on the antiquated
eye-for-an-eye maxim and sponsoring the death of a defenseless
person, no matter what his crime, strikes me as unnecessary and
barbaric. The added possibility that the state may execute an
innocent person makes the death penalty’s existence in
21st-century America all the more detestable. What are you supposed
to say if you discover that you’ve put an innocent man to
But perhaps the most sensitive issue surrounding the death
penalty is the execution of mentally ill criminals. While the U.S.
Supreme Court has allowed the death penalty to continue unabated in
the 37 states where it is still in practice, it did make one key
decision regarding the mentally ill in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright.
The court ruled that the execution of the mentally ill was
prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual
punishment clause, and it maintained that states could not execute
a person incapable of understanding why he was being executed.
Good decision. And it should have ended there. But it
didn’t. There were still plenty of bloodthirsty and vengeful
lawmakers and district attorneys with mentally ill criminals on
their hands who were, in their eyes, in need of executing. So what
were they to do? Lucky for them, the Supreme Court ruled in
Washington v. Harper in 1990 that dangerous inmates could be forced
to take antipsychotic medications. Where the average person might
have seen an opportunity to help someone overcome mental illness
and be rehabilitated, the aforementioned lawmakers and district
attorneys saw an opportunity to execute more inmates. If they could
force a mentally ill convict to take medication for his condition
and bring him to a “normal” or “stable”
state where he was capable of understanding why he was being
executed, then they could kill him, right?
It sounds a bit far-fetched, like a bad “Simpsons”
joke, perhaps. The American legal system wouldn’t allow for
something as ridiculous as this, would it? Our lawmakers and
district attorneys wouldn’t really rehabilitate a mentally
ill person just to kill him, would they? Unfortunately, they would.
Even more unfortunately, they already have.
An Arkansas man, Charles Singleton, was convicted of murdering
Mary Lou York during a robbery in 1979, when he was 19 years old,
and he was sentenced to death. In 1997, Singleton claimed to be
hearing voices in his head and was diagnosed with paranoid
schizophrenia. After being forced onto medication for the
condition, Singleton’s symptoms subsided. Now that he had
stabilized, he could effectively understand why he was being
executed, and therefore, the execution could take place as
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals heard his case and ruled that
Singleton’s only interest was in avoiding his sentence. The
state’s interest was in having a safe and sane inmate, and
the fact that making Singleton safe and sane would make him
suitable for execution was irrelevant. The court declared, in
essence, that it would be better for Singleton to be forced to take
the medication and then be executed than it would be for him to
take no medication and deal with psychosis. Call execution an
unfortunate side effect of the medication.
Singleton’s case caught the attention of anti-death
penalty lobbyists throughout the world. Amnesty International and
the European Union (there’s nothing quite like raising the
ire of an entire continent) both petitioned Gov. Mike Huckabee for
a stay of execution. Out of options and appeals, Singleton was
thrown on the mercy of the governor. But no stay would come, and
Singleton was put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday
The absurdity of Charles Singleton’s case shakes my faith
in the American legal system. For the system to say, in essence,
“Hey, Charles, we want you to get better, but then
we’ll have to kill you” flies in the face of reason.
But then again, maybe it takes a case as absurd as this to force
Americans to reconsider the death penalty and question their
government. In a nation that so often cries foul over human rights
violations abroad, it’s the least we can do.