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  Issue Date: 
Federal Court OKs Forced Drugging
Posted April 1, 2002

Sell has been found to be sane by the courts, but the 8th Circuit has ruled that drugging this maverick dentist will help him to assist in his defense.
Media Credit: Contributed
Sell has been found to be sane by the courts, but the 8th Circuit has ruled that drugging this maverick dentist will help him to assist in his defense.
The TV camera is fixed on a hot, cast-iron frying pan. "This is your brain," says the narrator. An egg is cracked and dropped, splattering into the pan. "This is your brain on drugs," the commercial concludes, with a close-up of the egg burning and shriveling in popping oil. The implication: drugs fry your brain; they alter your thought patterns. It is a simple message about illegal-drug use directed toward the youth of America.

Earlier this month the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came up with a new message directed at every American. In the case of United States v. Charles Thomas Sell, the court ruled that mind-altering drugs ? prescription medications used to alter thought patterns ? may be forced on any person charged with a crime who exhibits unacceptable behavior. It held that it doesn't matter if the detainee poses no danger to himself or others, nor does it matter that the person charged has yet to go to trial for an alleged crime. Worse still, say critics, the court neither limited the quantity or type of drugs to be administered nor foreclosed even the use of experimental drugs.

With the help of government-appointed psychiatrists and psychologists, federal prosecutors argued that Charles Sell, a St. Louis dentist accused of Medicaid fraud, suffers from persecutory "delusional disorder." True, he had been vocal about alleged government conspiracies at Waco, Texas, in Bosnia and in mishandling HIV, but the government was careful to base its demand that he be drugged solely on the "seriousness of the fraud charges."

In May 1997, Sell had been charged in a federal complaint with making false representations in connection with payments for health-care services and committing Medicaid fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. As a result, he has been incarcerated variously in jail, prison or hospitals for nearly four-and-a-half years and has spent almost two years of that time in solitary confinement. The dissenting opinion in the 2-1 ruling allowing him to be drugged against his will pointed out that, had Sell been convicted and sentenced for the alleged crimes, he already would have served a year longer than the maximum sentence of 33 to 41 months.

The law of the land supports the premise that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Sell has been found sane by the courts and poses no threat to himself or others. But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court has ruled that drugging this maverick dentist will help him to assist in his defense. Specifically, the court found:

  • "We agree that the evidence does not support a finding that Sell posed a danger to himself or others."

  • "We conclude that, subject to the limitations outlined below, the government may forcibly administer antipsychotic medication for the sole purpose of rendering a pretrial detainee competent to stand trial without violating the accuser's due-process rights."

  • "The court found that involuntary medication is the only way for the government to achieve its interest in fairly trying Sell and found that the medication is medically appropriate for him."

  • "We find that the medical evidence presented indicated a reasonable probability that Sell will fairly be able to participate in his trial. As a result, we believe that the effects of the medication on Sell's competency and demeanor may properly be considered once the medication is administered."

Andrew Schlafly, general counsel for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons Inc. (AAPS), a respected medical association dedicated to defending the patient-physician relationship and the ethical principles embodied in the Hippocratic oath, has filed an amicus curiae brief opposing the ruling. Schlafly tells Insight that "Dr. Sell is being drugged because they [the government] want to try him in a drugged state. The government claims the drugs will help him to aid in his own defense, but the real offense here is the government charging him with a nonviolent crime, giving him a psychiatric evaluation and then forcibly drugging him."

Schlafly says, "The government is seizing power in a lot of areas right now to force drugs on citizens. The fact is it is unprecedented to allow prosecutors to drug peaceful defendants presumed to be innocent. The government can't force citizens to pledge allegiance to the flag, but now forcibly can medicate them with mind-altering drugs. It's a shocking and inhumane decision."

Kathryn Serkes is a spokeswoman for the AAPS. "This is such a high-profile case, and so egregious," says Serkes, "that AAPS decided it couldn't just sit on the sidelines. Put yourself in Dr. Sell's position. His office was stormed, he was thrown into solitary confinement and he has been treated horribly. If you had been treated in a like manner you, too, might seem a little paranoid at this point. They are accusing him of being on shaky mental ground, and I probably would be, too, if I had been through what he's been through in the last four years."

What appears to be happening here, continues Serkes, "is that they've got some kind of delaying tactic going on, and if they drug him they can string this out for years and keep him from trial on competency issues as long as they want. And they can keep him in jail while all this is going on. Based on the research we've all seen, people tend to end up wackier on these drugs than when they walked in the door. And the ramifications of this ruling are huge. If the courts allow the government the power to drug the accused ? nonviolent people ? every one of us is in danger of forced drugging at the whim of a prosecutor. If it can happen to Dr. Sell it can be done to anyone."

David Oaks, director of Support Coalition International, a Eugene, Ore., human-rights organization, doubts the court was fully aware of the side effects of the drugs it was authorizing when it ruled on the matter. "I wonder," explains Oaks, "if the court would order a lobotomy if it would make a difference in a person's demeanor and ability to stand trial?" According to Oaks, "The long-term use of these drugs can cause structural brain damage that is very similar to a lobotomy, can be seen under MRI and CT scans and has been written up repeatedly in mainstream medical papers. But this information, I guess, isn't being introduced into these court settings."

The human-rights activist says, "This decision by the 8th Circuit really does threaten everyone. It's ironic that the majority of people in jail are there for some kind of drug-related offense, and now here's the court ordering people to submit to drugs against their will. It's a contradiction. The public understands that you can't just go and cut part of a person's brain out to make them ready for trial, so why is the court approving what equates to a chemical lobotomy?"

There is concern among the critics that the federal judiciary has been propagandized to believe that the new neuroleptic drugs offer a magic cure-all to clear the clouded mind. The very idea offends Oaks, who says: "This is a fantasy world that the court has bought into ? one convinced these drugs are a silver bullet that will magically fix any alleged problem." Whether there even is a "problem" with this stiff-necked political maverick is in the eyes of the beholder, the standard for all psychiatric diagnosis. The AAPS received a thank-you letter from Sell concerning the amicus brief filed on his behalf. According to Schlafly, "You can see by reading the letter that he's not crazy." The letter says:

"Thank you very much for the excellent amicus curiae brief that you filed in support of me on behalf of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. I just yesterday received a copy of the brief, and the other inmates that have read it so far are raving about it. You have given us prisoners here at Springfield new hope in our efforts against the terrible practice of forced medication. Also, I would like to assure you that I am not the despicable monster that the government portrays me. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter."

The U.S. attorney's office handling the case did not return Insight's calls requesting an interview to discuss these issues.

Kelly Patricia O'Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight.

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