Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 2003 / 17 Tishrei 5764

Paul Greenberg

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How to kill a crazy man | I learned long ago - in Dr. Mary Warters' comparative anatomy class at Centenary College - that there really is more than one way to skin a cat.

Now, between the majesty of the law and the maneuvers of politics, I'm learning that there's more than one way for the state to kill a crazy man.

Way No. 1: Back at the start of another presidential primary season a decade ago, a governor from Arkansas was stirring the same kind of interest a retired Army general is today. But questions abounded:

Was he one of those soft-on-crime, bleeding-heart liberals or the kind of candidate who could win back the Reagan Democrats? Would he be vulnerable to a Willie Horton commercial, or is he solid for lawunorder?

Even then Bill Clinton had all the right answers, or rather the politically viable ones. And he knew just how to deliver them in the most dramatic way:

Execute somebody.

The somebody turned out to be Rickey Ray Rector, who had been convicted for killing a police officer - Bob Martin, a respected veteran of a small-town police force. Rickey Ray Rector was the perfect candidate for execution.

But the prisoner had complicated matters by turning his weapon on himself after his crime, and shooting out part of his own brain, effectively lobotomizing himself.

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No matter. Rather than grant executive clemency, Bill Clinton let the execution go forward. I'd have had to revise my entire opinion of him if he'd done anything else, and maybe even retire my favorite nickname for a politician, Slick Willie.

Whatever the particulars of Ricky Ray Rector's legal case, the political case for his execution was overwhelming. To quote the AP dispatch after the deed was done:

"The execution could help Democratic presidential candidate Clinton distance himself from his party's soft-on-crime liberal image, said some political observers in New Hampshire . . . ."

Case closed, appeal for clemency denied. Given the political circumstances, Rickey Ray Rector had no more chance than his victims did.

But that's just one way to kill the mentally defective. The law has other ways. For example: A last appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States has just been turned aside in another troubling case from Arkansas, that of Charles Laverne Singleton, 44.

For 24 years now, more than half his life, Charles Laverne Singleton has sat on Death Row while his case made it through the courts, one divided decision after another since he was convicted of committing an awful murder.

That's because he's been diagnosed as psychotic - he sees demons in his cell, that sort of thing. And because it is unconstitutional, the courts have ruled, to execute someone who can't understand that he's being executed, or why.

But it's lawful to administer medicines that clear up the prisoner/patient's delusions and return him to sanity - so he can then be executed.

This is just what the people of Arkansas, in our wisdom and humanity, propose to do to Charles Laverne Singleton. For the law says (Washington v. Harper, 1990) that the state may administer anti-psychotic drugs to a prisoner if "the treatment is in the inmate's medical interest."

This state's Supreme Court ruled that it is indeed in said prisoner's interest to medicate him, in essence, to death. Its decision could have been written by The Hon. Franz Kafka.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis agreed, 6 to 5.

The majority's reasoning? The prisoner hadn't requested a competency hearing before he was on his medicine, that is, when he may not have been competent, and so he isn't entitled to one now just because, thanks to his medicine, he's sufficiently competent to ask for one. I think the technical term for this kind of jurisprudence is Kafkaesque.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court went along with the Eighth Circuit's decision, which doubtless makes legal sense - but no other.

Now the prisoner, temporarily returned to the sane world, finds that it wants to kill him. Which raises the question: Just who is mad here?

Charles Laverne Singleton's only hope now is that this governor of Arkansas, unlike the one who sealed Rickey Ray Rector's fate, will grant him executive clemency.

A spokesman for Mike Huckabee says the governor, before setting an execution date, gives each case before him a "thorough review," and, after setting a date for the execution, "sits down and reads everything in the case file."

Here's hoping Governor Huckabee won't confine his research to the legal briefs, but will search his heart, too. Justice has been sorely tested in this nigh-endless case; it's time to try mercy.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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