The inmate who has waged a hunger strike for more than two years watched his lawyers make their closing arguments Tuesday, but was not allowed to speak.
William B. Coleman, who says he’s using a hunger strike to protest his 2002 spousal rape conviction and a “broken judicial system,” watched and listened to the closing arguments via video conference from Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institute where he is currently being held.
Looking a little heavier than he did during his trial last February, Coleman listened intently, took notes, and watched as his lawyers argued that Superior Court Judge James Graham should focus on the medical ethics of force feeding.
Some defense experts and law professors equated force feeding to torture. Coleman’s lawyers say the end result of his hunger strike is his protest, which in their opinion is protected speech.
“This is not about suicide. Mr. Coleman is not suicidal,” William Murray of Edwards, Angell, Palmer, and Dodge LLP told Graham. If he was suicidal the state’s case would be more persuasive, he said.
“Let him be,” Murray, who was retained by the American Civil Liberties Union to help represent Coleman, said.
But the state seemed to focus on the safety and security of the more than 18,000 other inmates in state custody.
Assistant Attorney General Ann Lynch said there’s a 70 to 80 percent chance other inmates would become upset if Coleman ended up dying. If Coleman were able to successfully starve himself to death and become a “martyr” it would tax the states resources, she said.
She said it would also inspire copycats. Graham recalled hearing about one copycat over the past two years. Lynch said Correction officials who testified during the trial believe more copycats would begin their own demonstrations if Coleman is allowed to continue.
“He does have a First Amendment right, but it’s limited,” Lynch said.
She said the court has to weigh his First Amendment right, with the need to keep Coleman safe.
Graham asked where in Connecticut’s statutes does it talk about the preservation of life?
Lynch said Justice Ellen Peters authored a decision which said a if a patient is not terminal then it’s in the states interest to preserve their life. She said Coleman has indicated his willingness to die.
How do the Malta and Tokyo declarations apply to this case? Graham asked.
The World Medical Association’s 1975 Declaration of Tokyo, reinforced by the 1991 Declaration of Malta, states that “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the doctor as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”
Lynch said neither of those declarations have the force of law. She said most of the doctors who have adopted these declarations don’t practice in a Correctional setting.
Murray said the state bears the burden of proof in this case and in his opinion they’ve offered no factual evidence to support their position. He said just because force feeding has been standard protocol for Correction officials doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong.
He said the state resources expended on Coleman “could have been avoided if the state just let him be.”
“The safety and security factors the state relies upon in support of its claim we think is a non-starter,” Murray said.
Assistant Attorney General Lynn Wittenbrink said medical ethics is a single part of this case and should not be looked at in a vacuum.
Toward the end of the two-hour hearing Tuesday Graham asked Murray a hypothetical question about what conditions would be acceptable if he were to allow the force feeding to continue.
Aubrey Ruta, Murray’s co-counsel, said Coleman deserves to be treated by a doctor of his choice. She said he would also like to choose the manner in which he receives the nutrition.
“I’ve reached no decision yet,” Graham said. He said he hopes to issue a decision in the near future, but refused to specify a date. He said he will let counsel know once he’s authored a decision so one of them can appeal.
Coleman’s case is a case of “first impression” meaning it is the first time a Connecticut court has been asked to decide the question about whether or not a hunger strike is protected by the constitution.