RICHMOND, Va. – A mentally ill North Carolina man accused of trying to join Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria can be forcibly medicated to see if that will make him competent for trial, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling ordering Basit Sheikh to be forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication so that he can be made competent to defend himself against prosecution.
Sheikh's attorney urged the court last month to block the federal judge's involuntary medication order, arguing neither the public nor the government would be harmed if Sheikh was civilly committed instead of prosecuted.
But Judge Dennis W. Shedd wrote in the panel's opinion Wednesday that the government's interest in prosecuting Sheikh goes beyond simply protecting the public. Specifically, Sheikh's prosecution would send a message about the seriousness of the crime and potentially serve as a deterrent, Shedd wrote.
"Sheikh attempts to downplay this interest, arguing that the United States has prosecuted other individuals for similar attempts to support terrorist organizations. Regardless of any other prosecutions the United States may have conducted, we are not persuaded that those prosecutions diminish the seriousness of this one," Shedd wrote.
Sheikh can appeal to the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorney didn't respond to a message left at his office on Wednesday.
Sheikh, who suffers from schizophrenia, is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group for attempting to join Jabhat al-Nusra militants. He was arrested almost two years ago in an FBI sting to find and arrest Americans before they fought in Syria.
The three-judge panel said they understand that forced medication orders should be rare. But the judges said they believe that prosecutors have shown this case meets the requirements laid out in a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that restricted involuntary medication to certain serious criminal cases.
There were only about 77 such cases in federal courts nationwide in the nine years after the Supreme Court ruling through mid-2012, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University law professor Susan McMahon.