Attorneys for an inmate who has been on a hunger strike of varying degrees since 2007 asked the Supreme Court Tuesday to overturn the trial court’s decision that allows the Department of Correction to force feed him.
William E. Murray, the attorney for William B. Coleman, asked the seven justice panel to apply a balancing test where it must weigh the interests of the inmate against those of the Correction Department. Murray and his co-counsel David McGuire of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union said Hartford Superior Court Judge James Graham gave too much deference to the state when he issued his decision agreeing that the state met three of the four prongs of the balancing test.
“I’m not asking the court to second guess his medical treatment,” Murray told the justices Tuesday. “Mr. Coleman is just asking the court to consider that there were less invasive means available.”
“It’s less unpleasant to have an IV inserted in your arm than a tube forced down your stomach,” Murray said.
Instead of forcing a tube down Mr. Coleman’s nasal passage into his stomach, Murray argued the department could have offered an intravenous method to deliver the sustenance they believed he needed in order to stay alive. Both IV’s and nasogastric procedures were used on Mr. Coleman, but only the IV treatments were videotaped by the Department of Correction.
During the trial last February, videos of the procedures were entered into evidence. The nasogastric feeding was not taped, only its preparation and conclusion. Mr. Coleman had asked for the video to remain on so there was evidence of how painful the nasogastric procedure was for him.
Dr. Edward Blanchette, director of clinical operations for the Corrections Department, testified last year that the tube did kink on his first attempt to feed Mr. Coleman. He said the procedure was uncomfortable, but not painful. It’s a statement Assistant Attorney General Lynn Wittenbrink repeated Tuesday when she argued the facts of the case were exactly as the trial court found them.
“No penological system would allow an inmate to die,” she said.
She said the challenges facing the Correction Department in maintaining order are “Herculean” and Mr. Coleman was beginning to monopolize many of its resources.
Even if it had ignored his hunger strike and allowed him to take his own life, it would have had to provide him with palliative care, she said.
In the end, “If the department had not intervened Mr. Coleman would have died,” Wittenbrink said.
While she maintained that Coleman did have a diminished privacy interest, it was outweighed by the safety and security needs of the entire system.
“The weight of case law supports the commissioner’s decision in this case,” Wittenbrink argued.
The court focused very little on international law, but Justice C. Ian McLachlan said the argument can be made that if this procedure is banned in every other country that it’s considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Wittenbrink said it’s an uncomfortable procedure, but didn’t agree it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
McQuire said about a third of the brief was dedicated to the issue of international law, even though the arguments on court Tuesday didn’t focus on it.
Mr. Coleman has been on a hunger strike since 2007 to protest his marital rape conviction and a “broken judicial system.”
His eight year sentence ends Dec. 31, 2012 at which point his attorney’s say he will be immediately deported back to England.
This is the first hunger striking case to make it to a state Supreme Court. Given the fleeting nature of most hunger strikes, none of the cases in other states have made it past the trial court.
Click here to read about the trial court decision. Toward the bottom of the page there are links to all the stories about the trial.