Forced Medication Can't Send Inmate to Execution
AUSTIN (CN) - A Texas man on death row cannot be forcibly medicated to become competent for execution, the state's highest criminal appeals court ruled.
In a 5-4 decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a Tarrant County judge's order to forcibly medicate Steven Kenneth Staley.
He was convicted of capital murder in 1991 for the murder of a restaurant manager during a robbery. An execution date was set for February 2006, but the trial court since held two hearings on whether he is competent to be executed.
Staley, a paranoid schizophrenic, was found to be incompetent at the first hearing in January 2006 after a psychologist testified about Staley's his refusal to take medication, use of a fictitious language and nonsensical ordering of words that the therapist described as "word salad."
One month later, prosecutors filed a motion for involuntary medication that was granted. Staley fired back, challenging the intended medical purpose by arguing that psychotropic drugs can have harmful side effects. He also disputed the state's interest of enforcing the judgment, arguing the "artificial competence" of his forced medication does not constitute competence under state or federal law.
A 2012 hearing found Staley competent for execution based on testimony by a clinical and forensic psychologist who concluded Staley's psychotic and schizophrenic symptoms were under control with the forced medication.
The doctor testified that Staley knew many details of the case and his crime, that he knew the name of his defense attorneys, prosecutors and the victim, and had stated that he received a fair trial. The doctor testified that Staley knew his execution was imminent and understood why he was being executed, thus satisfying the two-prong test for execution competency under state law.
The appellate majority vacated that order Wednesday. But for the involuntary medication, the evidence does not show Staley is competent to be executed under state law, according to the 31-page opinion.
"We conclude that the trial court lacked the authority to order the involuntary medication of appellant and that the competency finding must be reversed because that determination is wholly dependent on that unauthorized involuntary medication of appellant," Judge Elsa Alcala wrote for the majority.
Texas law establishing competency for execution does not give the trial court authority to order the involuntary medication, that the trial court's role is expressly limited, the majority found.
"The language of that statute evinces its purpose of enabling defendants to seek a determination as to their competency to be executed and to obtain a stay of execution upon a finding of incompetency," Alcala wrote. "Nothing in the statute permits the trial court, once it has found a defendant incompetent, to take any action other than ordering periodic reevaluation of the defendant. The statutory language plainly and strictly limits the trial court's authority in competency-to-be-executed proceedings, and application of that language does not yield an absurd result."
No other state statute allows the trial court to order involuntary medication, either, the majority noted.
In a scathing dissent two colleagues joined, Judge Sharon Keller argued that the majority erroneously invoked the "contrived concept" of artificial competence, and therefore "breathed into existence a statutory requirement that simply does not exist."
"According to this artificial construct, a person's actual competence to be executed should be disregarded if he is made competent involuntarily," Keller wrote. "The court accepts counsel's invitation, reads this incoherent term into the statute, ascribes it legal significance, and holds that a person may not be executed if he has become competent as the result of an unauthorized order to medicate. But a person who is competent only because of involuntary medication is still competent, and the statute allows such a person to be executed."
The execution competency statute is silent as to how a person becomes competent, therefore disagreeing with the majority's conclusion the trial court did not have the authority to involuntarily medicate Staley, the dissent continued.
Keller's suggestion that the underlying reason for competency is irrelevant under the execution competency statute failed, however, to sway the majority.
"This argument is unpersuasive because it mistakenly suggests that this court should apply the standard for traditional sufficiency-of-the-evidence review rather than the more analogous standard that this court has applied when an unconstitutional act by the trial court has transformed the evidence in the case," Alcala wrote. "Here, the latter standard applies because the trial court's unauthorized order was the sole cause of the transformation of the evidence from evidence supporting a finding of incompetence into evidence supporting a finding of competence."
In a separate dissenting opinion, Judge Lawrence Meyers disputed the majority's conclusion that the Legislature would have said if it intended for court-ordered medications to be part of the execution competency statute. Joined by Keller and another colleague from her opinion, Meyers said the trial court has the authority to do so because it has the authority to enforce judgment.
"Even though the trial court already possessed this inherent authority to implement forced medication to make someone competent to stand trial, the legislature enacted that particular statute as a measure to instruct the trial court how to proceed," Meyers wrote. "This is no different than what the legislature has done in other instances where the trial court already had inherent authority to implement certain procedures. In the situation here, the trial judge is already vested with the authority to enforce the judgment of execution and he has apparent authority to take measures necessary to do so as long as those measures do not violate the appellant's rights. What the majority does not seem to understand or has somehow just overlooked is the reality of what has transpired in this case - that the trial judge (with or without authority) ordered that the defendant be forcibly medicated." (Parentheses in original.)
The real question is whether Staley's rights were violated by the forced medication, Meyers said. He compared the situation to the shackling of defendants during trial and complaints on appeal that the forced restraints are a violation of the right to a fair trial.
"There is no statute that gives the judge the authority to restrain the defendant, but he has inherent authority to order that a defendant wear shackles if it is necessary to prevent escape or disruption by the prisoner or to protect the safety of the parties, witnesses, jury, and others who may be present in the courtroom," Meyers wrote. "A defendant who was shackled at trial is entitled to relief only if he was restrained without justification and he shows that his right to a fair trial was violated by being forced to wear restraints in the presence of the jury."
Assistant District Attorney Jim Gibson said in a phone interview that his office disagrees with the court's ruling and is still weighing its options.