BANGOR – The attorney representing a Penobscot County Jail inmate on a more than two-week hunger strike said Wednesday he will seek a psychological review of his client, who has stated he wishes to die.
“It’s a hell of an ethical, legal dilemma,” said Dale Thistle, the court appointed attorney representing James Emerson, 23, who for at least 16 days has gone with only minimal food. He’s lost 26 pounds and jail officials are concerned that his health will deteriorate with the lack of sustenance.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross has readied a request for a court order to force feed Emerson who has been at the jail since late April on charges of theft, burglary and probation violations.
Although he has lost a lot of weight, Emerson’s condition hasn’t progressed to the point of compromising his health, the point at which Ross said he would seek the court order. That threshold could be reached soon, medical staff has told Ross.
“This will not go on a lot longer,” Ross said he was told.
Earlier in the week Ross said that he expected to seek the order by Friday, but on Wednesday he acknowledged that the date is a moving target, that it could be early next week.
“Friday, Monday, Saturday or Sunday, there’s no way to say,” Ross said.
Meanwhile, Thistle, who is representing Emerson on the state charges and a pending federal firearms charge, said he will be seeking a psychological review that could help the attorney determine how resolved his client is to kill himself as well as help to determine his competency to stand prosecution.
If he’s found incompetent, that could aid Emerson’s defense case, but if the examination comes in time, it could also set the stage for an involuntary force feeding and therefore go against Emerson’s expressed wishes.
“He has made it clear to me that if at all possible, to resist those efforts” to force feed him, Thistle said.
Separate from his client’s defense, Thistle, who is working pro bono, said that he plans to work on a living will and power-of-attorney documents for Emerson, documents that would spell out who has authority to make decisions on his behalf should he become incapacitated.
Opposing the request for an order to force feed Emerson may be a different matter.
“I’m uncertain about that right now,” Thistle said after a long pause when he was asked about opposing the order.
Emerson was one of five people – including his younger brother Joshua Emerson – charged with a burglary in Corinth on April 27. The burglary led investigators to a Bangor apartment where a methamphetamine laboratory was under development, authorities have said.
Several weeks ago, Emerson was placed in holding after he threatened to harm corrections officers in an effort to be transferred to the Maine State Prison in Warren.
In recent weeks, Emerson’s efforts to seek plea agreements ended as he realized that he faces eight or more years in prison, his attorney said. Rather than seeking to expedite his sentencing, he decided he wanted to end his life, Thistle said.
“He was on a hunger strike because he was choosing not to live anymore,” Thistle said.
Emerson told Thistle Wednesday that he has been on a hunger strike for about 20 days, although jail officials said he has had at least a little water to drink and Ross said Wednesday that Emerson had bites from a few potato chips in the previous 12 hours.
“He had a couple of potato chips, but nothing of substance,” he said.
Thistle said he has tried to convince Emerson that starving himself to death is not the answer.
“I hope that Mr. Emerson comes around rather speedily,” Thistle said. “I think he’ll see there’s more to life than he’s thought about it.”