SOUTH BERWICK — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is weighing whether the state can involuntarily medicate criminal suspects for the sole purpose of making them fit to stand trial.

The high court’s ruling in the case of a man facing drug trafficking and other charges could clarify the circumstances under which state courts can order defendants to be involuntarily medicated, which the Legislature authorized in 2015.

The court, which met at Marshwood High School to give students an opportunity to watch the justices at work, heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of Ismail Awad, who faces charges of theft, burglary and drug trafficking as well as an additional charge of aggravated assault after allegedly attacking three workers in October 2014 at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Awad was sent to Riverview for mental evaluations after his arrest in early 2014.

Doctors at the psychiatric hospital say Awad suffers from schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder and substance abuse.

Awad has been repeatedly evaluated regarding his competency for trial and courts determined at least six times since early 2015 that he wasn’t mentally fit. In March, a Kennebec County Superior Court judge issued an order authorizing the state to forcibly medicate Awad in an effort to make him competent to stand trial and assist in his defense.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine took up Awad’s case, arguing that the state failed to meet thresholds set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003 that courts could force criminal suspects to take medication to make them fit for trial if there is clear and convincing evidence that it will be effective.

Awad, who has intermittently refused to take his medication, is the second suspect that Maine courts have ordered involuntarily medicated. The first was Leroy Smith III, who was accused of killing his father in 2014 in Gardiner. Smith was ordered by a judge in January to be administered drugs to deal with a delusional disorder, but he later agreed to voluntarily take the medication.

Smith’s attorneys never appealed the judge’s medication order. Smith entered pleas of not guilty and not criminally responsible in June and a trial date has not yet been set.

Awad’s case is the first such appeal the state’s highest court has taken up.

The ACLU argued that the judge who issued the order to medicate Awad failed to consider that evidence on how the drugs might affect him was contradictory or inconclusive.

One doctor testified that he thought medication was unlikely to help Awad, saying he didn’t seem to understand the consequences of facing the charges or the concept of pleading not criminally responsible. Another doctor said he had “quite guarded to poor” confidence that Awad would be competent to stand trial if medicated, and that forcing him to take the drugs would be “psychologically traumatic.”

But a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Riverview said Awad appeared to function better after taking the drugs and she felt it was “more likely than not” he would be competent for trial if he stayed on the medication.

The justices seemed to wrestle with whether the goal is to help Awad get better or simply to make him fit to stand trial.

“He is seriously mentally ill,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said. “We just need an opportunity to find a way to better health for this person.”

“The criminal justice system is not the best system in the state to help Mr. Awad,” replied Zachary Heiden, the ACLU lawyer handling Awad’s appeal.

Justice Donald G. Alexander said it might be better in the long run for Awad to face the charges sooner rather than later.

“Would it be worse for Mr. Awad to be found competent (to stand trial) and possibly found not guilty by reason of insanity, or locked up indefinitely?” he asked.

Kate Marshall, the lawyer representing the state, said she thought the judge who ordered the involuntary medication had struck “a thoughtful balance” between Awad’s health and the interest of the state in trying him on the charges he faces.

But Saufley said she has “lingering concerns” about the order.

The court is expected to issue a decision in a few months.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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