Nearly 8 years in prison without a trial

Posted: Dec 13, 2004 12:00 AM

"I want to go to trial on Monday; I've been locked up for nearly eight years," declared Charles Thomas Sell. "The federal court has no evidence, they have no witnesses. I want my trial one week from today. I am not incompetent in any way, shape or form."

His statements rang true to bystanders attending his hearing on Nov. 22 in the federal courthouse in St. Louis. Whatever happened to the right of an accused to have a speedy trial?

Once a successful dentist in St. Louis County who treated many indigent patients, Sell was accused of Medicaid fraud in 1997. Although he has never hurt anyone, and a federal court held that he poses no danger to those around him, prison officials frequently placed him in solitary confinement for periods that totaled nearly two years.

Prison officials tried to drug Sell, allegedly to make him fit for trial, and lower courts ruled in favor of mandatory drugging of this non-convicted, non-dangerous, nonviolent prisoner. The federal government fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the power to forcibly drug Sell and, even though it lost its case there, the government continued to imprison and prevent him from receiving proper medical care.

The forced medication was designed to correct Sell's attitude toward the government. Sell seemed to think the government was out to get him, and the government wanted to drug him to get him to change his mind.

Is this occurring in the United States of America?

Psychiatrists were frequently employed by the Soviet Union to cover up atrocities and silence critics, but U.S. veterans who fought against the Communists in Korea and Vietnam never expected such tactics to be used by their own government.

Earlier this year, a government psychologist declared Sell mentally fit for trial. Apparently, that medical opinion was unsatisfactory to Sell's persecutors, and to everyone's surprise that government psychologist reversed his diagnosis without re-examining him, and declared Sell unfit for trial.

An independent psychiatrist then confirmed Sell's own view that he was fit for trial, and the court agreed and scheduled a trial for Nov. 29. But on Nov. 22, lawyers insisted Sell was not ready for trial and persuaded a judge to cancel it.

The lawyers argued that Sell is not competent to stand trial because he insists on talking about the abuse he has suffered in prison, abuse that could be proved by prison videos the government is keeping secret. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons filed a motion for the court to release these tapes, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also intervened to demand their public release.

But it appears that the government is doing everything it can to prevent a trial of Sell that would expose the record of this case.

In investigative reporting worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, Carolyn Tuft of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed on Nov. 23 some of the evidence on the still-secret videos. She reported that two videotapes of Sell show him being stripped, scalded, humiliated and brutalized in a way that sounds shockingly similar to the abuse of inmates by their U.S. captors at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Is there no accountability for this type of government misconduct? Instead of investigating and punishing the wrongdoers, federal officials are moving heaven and earth to avoid a public trial that could expose the tapes and the fact that a man has been held in prison so long without trial.

The only one in the courtroom making any sense at what should have been the final hearing before trial was Sell himself, who stood up to assert his constitutional rights. His plea was to no avail, as the judge ordered him shipped to North Carolina for yet another examination by a government psychiatrist.

By now Sell knows the game all too well, and he announced in open court that he would not submit to another sham mental evaluation. Nevertheless, he will be transported cross-country to find another government psychiatrist to deliver the desired diagnosis to save officials from public scrutiny.

We've all seen the pictures of Abu Ghraib, so why can't we see pictures of prisoner abuse in the federal prison at Springfield, Mo.? Congress should demand the immediate release of the shocking videos showing the mistreatment of Sell and also order a full accounting of the taxpayers' money spent by the government to keep a man in prison nearly eight years without trial.