U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court allows execution of inmate who can't remember his crime

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday cleared an impediment to the execution of an Alabama inmate who can’t remember the crime he committed after suffering several strokes.

In a summary reversal, the high court found that precedent on mental capacity does not prevent the execution of Vernon Madison in the context of his habeas appeal, report the Washington Post, SCOTUSblog, the Associated Press and USA Today. Madison was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in 1985.

Madison understands he is being executed for a murder, but he doesn’t recall the crime or the trial, according to a psychologist hired by his lawyer. A concurrence by Justice Stephen G. Breyer summarized Madison’s issues.

Madison “has lived nearly half of his life on death row,” Breyer said. “During that time, he has suffered severe strokes, which caused vascular dementia and numerous other significant physical and mental problems. He is legally blind. His speech is slurred. He cannot walk independently. He is incontinent. His disability leaves him without a memory of his commission of a capital offense.”

In 2016, Madison sought to suspend his death sentence due to his memory lapses.

A trial judge in Alabama ruled against Madison, saying he failed to show that he suffered from a mental illness that makes him unable to rationally understand he is being executed as punishment for a crime. The standard was established in two Supreme Court cases.

Madison sought habeas relief. A federal judge said the state court had correctly applied precedent and didn’t make an unreasonable determination entitling him to relief, a required showing for habeas appeals under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that because Madison has no memory of his offense, it inescapably follows that he doesn’t understand the connection between his crime and execution.

In a per curiam opinion (PDF), the Supreme Court said the 11th Circuit was wrong. Supreme Court precedent has not clearly established that “a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment,” the court said.

The high court said it was ruling based on the deferential standard given state court determinations established by the AEDPA. “We express no view on the merits of the underlying question outside of the AEDPA context,” the Supreme Court said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred in an opinion joined by Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She said the issue in the case warrants a “full airing,” but the court is constrained by the AEDPA.

Breyer wrote a separate concurrence. Madison is 67 years old and is “one among a growing number of aging prisoners who remain on death row in this country for ever longer periods of time,” Breyer said. The average time on death row for the 21 people executed this year was 19 years, he said.

The trend could bring more cases to the court involving “state efforts to execute prisoners suffering the diseases and infirmities of old age,” Breyer added. “And we may well have to consider the ways in which lengthy periods of imprisonment between death sentence and execution can deepen the cruelty of the death penalty while at the same time undermining its penological rationale. …

“Rather than develop a constitutional jurisprudence that focuses upon the special circumstances of the aged, however, I believe it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem—the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”

Breyer first called for a review or the constitutionality of the death penalty in a lethal injection case in 2015.

The case decided Monday is Dunn v. Madison.

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