The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the death sentence of a mentally disturbed murderer who was being forcibly medicated by Louisiana prison officials so that he could be executed.
The case of Michael Owen Perry has been the most closely watched death penalty case of the current term because it tested the willingness of the court's dominant conservatives to uphold executions.
Just four years ago, the court ruled that an insane inmate could not be put to death, even if he had been found competent to stand trial and convicted. Since an insane person cannot understand the gravity of his crime or the reason for his punishment, proceeding with his execution would be "cruel and unusual," the court reasoned.
Last year, the Louisiana courts moved to undercut that decision. If a psychotic Death Row inmate could be forcibly medicated and made sane, then he could be executed, according to the Louisiana judges.
But the high court balked. In a brief ruling, it vacated Perry's death sentence and sent his case back to Louisiana for the judges there to consider whether the drug treatment was in Perry's "medical interest."
The ruling was based on a Supreme Court decision in February. In the case of Washington vs. Harper, the court had said that a disturbed inmate can be forcibly medicated by prison doctors, but only if he is "dangerous" and the treatment is "in the inmate's medical interest."
"We think it's a contradiction in terms to say the medication is in his best interest if the purpose of the treatment is to execute him," said Richard Taranto, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented the American Psychiatric Assn. Both the APA and the American Medical Assn. had filed briefs urging that Perry's death sentence be overturned.
Louisiana Assistant Atty. Gen. Rene Salomon disagreed. "When he (Perry) gets his medicine, he's healthy. His symptoms disappear. So I can tell you straight out that it is in his best interest to be medicated," Salomon said.
Tuesday's unsigned Supreme Court decision is not a final ruling, and the lawyers in the case are uncertain of its meaning.
A majority of the justices may have decided that the Louisiana courts erred, or the justices may have been unwilling to send Perry to his death on a 4-4 vote in the Supreme Court. The justices heard arguments in the case (Perry vs. Louisiana, 89-5120) on Oct. 2, before new Justice David H. Souter arrived. The case could have left the justices split and unable to write a majority opinion.
On July 17, 1983, Perry shot and killed his parents, two cousins and a nephew in Lake Arthur, La. He took $3,000 from his father's house, drove to Washington, D.C., and checked into a hotel several blocks from the White House. When police entered his room, they found the names of his five victims written on the side of the television set.
Perry, who had suffered from mental problems for years, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to death.
Because of bizarre and delusional behavior in prison, he was repeatedly examined by psychiatrists. Based on their testimony, a judge in 1988 ruled that Perry was "competent for execution . . . but only while maintained on psychotropic medication in the form of Haldol." Prison officials were ordered to medicate Perry, "forcibly . . . if necessary," so he could be executed.