November 12, 2008

Incompetent bank robber cannot be forcibly medicated, court rules

I just came back from evaluating a convicted prisoner to see if he is competent to proceed with his appeal. He has been found "gravely disabled" and is being forcibly injected with an antipsychotic medication (Haldol Decanoate).

He was refusing to eat because he thought the food was poisoned. But what if he was eating his food and behaving himself, but still quietly harbored paranoid delusions?

That's when Sell would come in.

As many of you know, under the 2003 case of the Sell v. United States, for a defendant to be forcibly medicated to restore competency, a court must find that:
  • important government interests are at stake
  • involuntary medication will significantly further those interests by being "substantially likely" to restore the defendant's competency
  • the medication is substantially unlikely to have negative side effects
  • the medication is medically appropriate
In a boon to good, old-fashioned talk therapy, the Sell ruling also mandated a showing that less intrusive and noxious treatments will not work.

In New Jersey, a federal judge just ruled that the government did not meet the burden of proving those things in the case of a paranoid bank robbery defendant named Wayne Moruzin. Prosecutors had claimed there was a good chance that Haldol injections would stop his paranoia and hallucinations and make Moruzin fit for trial. But a U.S. District Court judge said they didn't provide enough evidence of that, considering the health dangers of antipsychotics such as Haldol.

I've never met anyone who liked taking Haldol. It makes you feel like a drugged-out zombie, and it can cause severe and permanent health problems.

But such a ruling always leads to the question, what will happen next? The government can try to civilly commit Moruzin, or they can just wait and see if he gets better - which is unlikely without medication.

The ruling parallels a U.S. District Court decision in January of 2007 involving a different mentally ill bank robber. In that case, though, the robber had already pleaded guilty in three other bank heists and was serving a 36-year sentence.

The cases don't break new legal ground, but they do continue an interesting trend.

The New Jersey Law Journal report on the Moruzin case is available online at

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