Appeals court considers right to refuse medication
Courts say a Jehovah’s Witness is unfit to stand trial without treatment
A panel of federal judges ruled last week in favor of a man claiming that his religious convictions bar him from taking anti-psychosis medication that would enable him to stand trial. Mississippi resident Bryant Lamont Harris faces charges in Louisiana for allegedly threatening to assault a federal judge in 2020. He was later deemed incompetent to stand trial.
Authorities charged Harris for calling the chambers of a federal judge multiple times, claiming to be an ex-military marksman and inquiring how many security guards he would “need to take out to get to the judge.” The panel’s decision described Harris as “delusional,” with Harris telling behavior analysts he was offered “multiple women and $500k a month contract to join the Illuminati” because he maintained “special gifts.”
The District Court ordered Harris to be hospitalized for no more than four months, but he refused to take medication because of his convictions as a Jehovah’s Witness. The official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses states, “the vast majority of medical treatments do not conflict with Bible principles.” Members believe the Bible disallows blood transfusions but receiving other forms of medical care is a matter of “personal choice.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Harris’ religious convictions combined with his time spent in pretrial detention outweighed the government’s compelling interest in making Harris fit for trial. The panel specifically noted the time Harris has spent in pretrial detention almost meets the suggested conviction time for his offense.
The judgment voided a previous court order allowing for Harris’ involuntary medication and remanded the case to a lower court. The judges recognized the potentially dangerous nature of the precedent stating, “We do not hold that religious faith constitutes a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Swaim described the ruling as a good thing for religious liberty. Swaim served in the U.S. attorney’s offices in North Carolina and Florida, where he had 30 years of federal felony criminal trial experience. He pointed out that the court’s ruling will return the case to a lower court to reevaluate Harris’ religious right to object to forced medication. “The court took [Harris’] religious interests seriously, as juxtaposed to state interests,” Swaim explained. “This is a court that’s trying to not create the law, but follow the law.”
So if Harris won’t take medication and he’s unfit to stand trial, where does that leave the case? Harris could opt for an anti-psychosis treatment that does not use medication, which might restore his competency to stand trial. The government could continue to detain Harris if it demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that he is a danger to himself or others if released. The government has already filed a civil commitment motion for Harris.
Swaim voiced doubts the precedent would be abused, saying that while defendants have been claiming mental incompetence to avoid trial for hundreds of years, they have to prove their religious convictions. “A Jehovah’s Witness’ aversion to outside medical treatment is one that is well documented in jurisprudence,” Swaim explained, but qualified that, “defenses that are raised are only limited by the human imagination.”
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