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Arkansas prepares to execute mentally ill inmate

By Kevin Drew

Charles Singleton
Charles Singleton

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Arkansas concedes Charles Singleton has mental problems, but says they aren't relevant to his execution.
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(CNN) -- The voices inside Charles Singleton's head vary, in volume and number, regardless of whether he has taken medication for his schizophrenia. Inside his Arkansas cell, he says he can often hear voices that speak of killing him.

Singleton's attorney says his 44-year-old client welcomes the scheduled Tuesday night execution he faces, because he is tired of living with mental illness.

The attorney says Singleton understands that he will be put to death and why -- the current legal standards to qualify for execution.

Singleton, however, is rational only when he is on medication. It is that fact, as well as an 18-year-old Supreme Court ruling barring execution of the mentally ill, that his attorney, some members of the legal and medical communities and death penalty critics point to in their opposition to Singleton's execution.

"If he [Singleton] is artificially made to be competent, then the situation is an oxymoron," said Ronald Tabak, a New York-based attorney who has represented clients in death penalty cases.

But the prosecutor in the Singleton case claims the defendant was clearly sane at the time of the crime, and therefore unaffected by the Supreme Court ruling.

"I do not feel he is being medicated in order to put him to death," said John Frank Gibson, who hasn't dealt with the Singleton case in recent years. "He's being medicated to ... keep him healthy, to control him."

Stay of execution lifted

Singleton was 19 when he stabbed Mary Lou York to death while robbing a small grocery store in Hamburg, Arkansas. She identified him before she died. In 1979 he was convicted and sentenced to death.

A prison psychiatrist in 1997 diagnosed Singleton as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. That same year, a prison medication review panel ordered Singleton to take antipsychotic drugs after finding he posed a danger to himself and to others.

After the medication took effect, Singleton's psychotic symptoms abated and Arkansas made plans to execute him.

Singleton's attorneys filed a lawsuit arguing the state could not constitutionally restore his client's mental competency through the use of forced medication and then execute him.

In October 2001, a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Singleton be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state of Arkansas appealed, and last February a sharply divided full 8th Circuit Court lifted a stay of execution for Singleton.

The court said that since Singleton now voluntarily takes medication and because Arkansas has an interest in having sane inmates, the side effect of sanity should not affect Singleton's sentence.

Last October, the Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the Singleton case.

Mental illness factor

Singleton attorney Jeff Rosenzweig: Last-minute appeal now unlikely.
Singleton attorney Jeff Rosenzweig: Last-minute appeal now unlikely.

A majority of Americans has consistently supported use of the death penalty since its reinstatement in the 1970s.

In a Gallup Poll last October 6-8, 64 percent of Americans surveyed said they supported the death penalty, while 32 percent opposed it. The poll surveyed 1,019 people.

But polls also show that the issue of mental illness sharply affects public opinion.

According to a Gallup Poll taken in 2002, 75 percent of those surveyed opposed executing mentally ill inmates, while 19 percent supported it. The poll surveyed 1,012 Americans across the country May 6-9 of 2002.

The son of the victim in the Singleton case says the insanity question is just a ploy.

"I don't believe it," said Charles York. "It's just something they use to prolong things to keep it in the court system."

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee could still grant clemency. Additionally, Singleton attorney Jeff Rosenzweig last week obtained permission from his client to examine his medical records, but on Monday he said that, unless Singleton's condition drastically deteriorates, it is unlikely he would file an appeal asking a judge to find Singleton incompetent.

Singleton is scheduled to be executed at 8 p.m. (9 p.m. ET) Tuesday by lethal injection at the Cummins prison unit in Varner, about 70 miles south of Little Rock.

Arkansas will execute a second inmate on Tuesday, Karl Roberts, an hour after Singleton's execution. Roberts was convicted for the kidnap, rape and murder of his 12-year-old niece.

CNN's Brian Cabell contributed to this report.

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