Drugged Trials

Medicated until proven guilty

A federal appeals court delivered a decision in March that could open the floodgates of forced drugging of prisoners -- even before they're proven guilty of any crime.

Charles Sell has been held without bond pending trial since early 1998. Originally charged with Medicaid fraud, Sell allegedly made threats against potential witnesses, leading to further charges of conspiring to kill a witness and an FBI agent. Because of screaming fits during court appearances and apparently paranoid delusions, including Sell's stated belief that he knew secrets about government culpability in the deaths at Waco, the court decided in April 1999 that Sell was not competent to stand trial.

Two psychiatrists declared that Sell needed antipsychotic medicine in order to become competent. Sell offered the testimony of his own psychiatrist, who said he didn't think the accused would respond well to the medication.

The fight ended up before a magistrate and then a district court, each of whom decided that Sell had to be drugged, but for different reasons. The magistrate said it was because he presented a danger to himself and others. The District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri declared that even though Sell did not pose a danger to himself or others, the state's interest in having him competent to stand trial overrode his right to refuse medication. In a 2-1 decision, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has now upheld that ruling.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Kermit E. Bye declared that, based on previous Supreme Court decisions that tried to balance state and individual interests regarding forced medication, Sell's alleged crimes were not severe enough to justify drugging him. In an amicus brief, Karen Tripp, an attorney for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), discussed the known potential health risks of antipsychotic drugs, and said that "imposing a risk of a horrifying death on a prisoner is contrary to the presumption that he is innocent until proven guilty."

Further, "Giving carte blanche to prison medical staff to inject dangerous drugs...into a peaceful prisoner they already dislike...removes the essential protection of informed consent against abusive treatment with respect to an uncooperative prisoner." The AAPS plans to spearhead a further appeal of this decision.

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