Singleton v. Norris: the Eighth Circuit Maneuvered Around the Constitution by Forcibly Medicating Insane Prisoners to Create an Artificial Competence for Purposes of Execution

Publication year2022


Creighton Law Review

Vol. 37


The argument against involuntary medication stems from the belief that defendants have certain constitutional rights even while imprisoned and especially while awaiting execution.(fn1) These constitutional rights encompass, among other things, the First Amendment right to communicate, especially with counsel; the right of the mentally ill to avoid execution pursuant to the Eighth Amendment; and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.(fn2) Opponents to the administration of drugs to inmates or detainees awaiting trial argue psychotropic drugs may interfere with a prisoner's ability to exercise these rights because the drugs may cause sedation, produce anxiety, diminish awareness of events happening in the surrounding environment, and cause involuntary muscle movement.(fn3) Due to this state of medicated sedation and the masking but not curing of the underlying symptoms, critics of forced medication, for purposes of execution, argue restored competence is merely artificial.(fn4) As a result, an individual whose competency is restored through forced medication is no more competent than before the administration of the treatment.(fn5) Thus, although the Constitution allows forced medication, a judge should not use the artificial competency the medication creates to determine the competence of an insane prisoner awaiting execution.(fn6)

In Singleton v. Norris,(fn7) the Eighth Circuit weighed a prisoner's interest in avoiding forced medication against the government's inter-est in rendering an inmate competent for execution.(fn8) In 1979, the State of Arkansas sentenced Charles Singleton ("Singleton") to life imprisonment for robbery and sentenced Singleton to death for a murder related to the robbery.(fn9) During his imprisonment, Singleton exhibited signs of mental illness and, as a result, the state forcibly administered antipsychotic medication to Singleton in 1997.(fn10) Singleton argued his mental incompetence, void of medication, should lead to a stay of execution.(fn11) The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent permitted two things.(fn12) First, the Eighth Amendment allowed the execution of those who had knowledge of their impending execution and the reasons for such a sentence.(fn13) Second, the state may forcibly medicate mentally incompetent prisoners in an effort to protect the prisoner, other inmates, and prison property.(fn14) Therefore, the Eighth Circuit opined a state does not encroach upon the Eighth Amendment when it executes an incompetent death row prisoner who regained competency through appropriate medical treatment.(fn15)

This Note will examine whether forced administration of antipsychotic drugs before execution, for the partial purpose of rendering an individual competent for execution, violates a prisoner's constitutional rights.(fn16) The Note will begin by reviewing the facts and holding of Singleton.(fn17) Next, this Note will examine prior case law which examined the constitutional rights of prisoners awaiting execution, the constitutional rights of prisoners subject to forced medication, and the government's justification for carrying out a lawfully imposed sentence of execution.(fn18) Next, this Note will analyze how the courts should define insanity.(fn19) The Analysis will continue by examining the Eighth Amendment's ban on executing the insane.(fn20) The Analysis will close with a discussion of artificial competency.(fn21) In conclusion, this Note will argue the Eighth Circuit's medicate-to-execute philosophy, established in Singleton, contradicted precedent and common law, which protected the insane from execution while in a state of artificial competence.(fn22)


In Singleton v. Norris,(fn23) Judge Paul Roberts of the circuit court in Ashley County, Arkansas convicted and sentenced Charles Singleton ("Singleton") to death for capital felony murder.(fn24) In addition to receiving the death penalty, Singleton received a sentence of life imprisonment for aggravated robbery related to the incident.(fn25) Chief Judge Adkisson of the Arkansas Supreme Court set aside the robbery conviction while affirming the murder conviction and the death sentence because Singleton failed to show the trial court had committed reversible error in selection of the jury and denying Singleton's hearsay objections.(fn26) After the Arkansas Supreme Court denied Singleton's post-conviction relief, the state set his execution date for June 4, 1982.(fn27)

Under a writ of habeas corpus, Singleton petitioned the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas for a stay of execution.(fn28) Singleton argued ineffective counsel, invalid aggravating factors, and incompetence, claiming the state should order a stay of execution because of his mental condition.(fn29) Chief Judge Garnett Eisele, writing for the court, stated the use of pecuniary gain as an aggravating factor of the murder replicated a factor in the underlying robbery charge and therefore, the court could not use this double jeopardy type situation to impose the death penalty on Singleton.(fn30) Thus, the court granted Singleton's petition and reversed the death sentence; however, the court sustained the conviction.(fn31) Singleton and the state both appealed the district court's decision to the United States Court of Ap-peals for the Eighth Circuit.(fn32) Singleton argued ineffective assistance of counsel and unfair jury selection.(fn33) The state argued the district court erred in disallowing a retrial of Singleton's penalty phase after the district court's decision.(fn34) The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the conviction but overruled the stay of execution, finding Singleton's claim unsuccessful because he failed to show prejudice existed at his trial.(fn35) On remand, Singleton again argued ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase and argued the Arkansas death penalty was unconstitutional.(fn36) The district court reinstated the death penalty and Singleton again made an appeal to the Eighth Circuit.(fn37) Circuit Judge Roger Wollman of the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision, contending Singleton received adequate assistance of counsel at the penalty phase because he had waived his right to present the mitigating evidence he claimed his attorney failed to put forward during the trial.(fn38)

In 1992, Singleton filed a declaratory judgment action in an Arkansas trial court to contest his execution on the grounds that he was mentally incompetent and that the state violated his constitutional rights by medicating him to make him seem competent.(fn39) Singleton argued the state should allow him to discontinue his medication to demonstrate his incompetence, thus proving the state's inability to execute him.(fn40) The trial court denied the motion and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed, explaining that Singleton never argued forcible medication violated his rights and thus, he was not entitled to a sanity commission.(fn41) In 1993, Singleton filed a second writ of habeas corpus arguing the state could not execute him, under the United States Supreme Court ruling in Ford v. Wainwright,(fn42) because of his incompetence.(fn43) On appeal from the district court's dismissal of the petition, Singleton admitted the antipsychotic medication he voluntarily took made him competent.(fn44) The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal.(fn45)

After a review panel of medical experts determined Singleton posed a risk to himself and others, the state started Singleton on an involuntary medical treatment regime.(fn46) In January 2000, the state set Singleton's execution for March 1, 2000.(fn47) Singleton contested the state's action by filing another petition of habeas corpus in the district court, contending the state could not forcibly render him competent and thereafter execute him.(fn48) Denying the petition, the district court reasoned there was no evidence the medical personnel intended to forcibly medicate Singleton in order to render him competent, a prerequisite for execution, but instead medicated Singleton for his own safety.(fn49)

Singleton appealed the district court's decision to the Eighth Circuit, arguing the state could not forcibly medicate him and then contend he had met the competency level required for execution.(fn50) The Eighth Circuit granted a stay of execution requesting that the district court certify two questions for the appeal.(fn51) The Eighth Circuit asked the district court to discuss Singleton's competency prior to the forced medication order in 1997 and whether Singleton would remain competent without the involuntary medication.(fn52) The district court found Singleton was not competent when the involuntary medication regime started in 1997.(fn53) The court responded to the second question by explaining, without medication, Singleton would revert back into psychosis; however, the court could not declare when or how incompetent Singleton would become.(fn54) Since 2000, Singleton had taken his medication voluntarily; however, during the appeal the Eighth Circuit noted that, should...

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