Madison v Alabama – Death Penalty and Dementia
In Madison v Alabama, 586 U. S. ____ (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime. However, it may prohibit executing a prisoner even though he suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote, siding with the Court’s liberal justices.
Eighth Amendment and the Death Penalty
In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing. According to the Court, there is a moral “intuition” that “killing one who has no capacity” to understand his crime or punishment “simply offends humanity.” The Court also cited the lack of “retributive value” in executing a person who has no comprehension of the meaning of the community’s judgment.
In Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007), the Court clarified the appropriate “standard for competency.” It held that critical question is whether a “prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.”
Facts of Madison v Alabama
Vernon Madison killed a police officer in 1985 during a domestic dispute. An Alabama jury found him guilty of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to death.
As detailed in the Court’s opinion, Madison’s mental condition has sharply deteriorated in recent years. Madison suffered a series of strokes, including major ones in 2015 and 2016. He was diagnosed as having vascular dementia, with attendant disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss. In particular, Madison claims that he can no longer recollect committing the crime for which he has been sentenced to die.
After his 2016 stroke, Madison petitioned the trial court for a stay of execution on the ground that he had become mentally incompetent. Citing Ford and Panetti, he argued that “he no longer understands” the “status of his case” or the “nature of his conviction and sentence.” Alabama responded that Madison had a rational understanding of the reasons for his execution, even assuming he had no memory of committing his crime. The State also argued that Madison failed to implicate Ford and Panetti because both decisions concerned themselves with gross delusions, which Madison did not have.
Following a competency hearing, the trial court found Madison competent to be executed. On federal habeas review, this Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of relief, holding that, under the “demanding” and “deferential standard” of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), “[n]either Panetti nor Ford ‘clearly established’ that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed” because of a simple failure to remember his crime. But the Court “express[ed] no view” on the question of Madison’s competency outside of the AEDPA context. When Alabama set a 2018 execution date, Madison returned to state court, arguing once more that his mental condition precluded the State from going forward. The state court again found Madison mentally competent.
By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision. Justice Elena Kagan authored the majority opinion.
The majority first concluded that the Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime. In support, it noted that Panetti asks only about a person’s comprehension of the State’s reasons for resorting to punishment, not his memory of the crime itself. “The state seeks capital punishment for a crime, not his memory of the crime itself,” Justice Kagan wrote. “And the one may exist without the other.”
Justice Kagan went on to explain that memory loss alone does not bar capital punishment. “Moral values do not exempt the simply forgetful from punishment,” she wrote, “whatever the neurological reason for their lack of recall.”
The majority next addressed whether the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner even though he suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. It concluded that, under Ford and Panetti, the answer is yes.
“Its standard focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect: an inability to rationally understand why the State is seeking execution,” Justice Kagan wrote. “Conversely, that standard has no interest in establishing any precise cause: Psychosis or dementia, delusions or overall cognitive decline are all the same under Panetti, so long as they produce the requisite lack of comprehension.”
She added: “In evaluating competency to be executed, a judge must, therefore, look beyond any given diagnosis to a down-stream consequence.” The Court did not decide whether Madison’s execution should go forward. Rather, it remanded the case for further consideration of Madison’s competency in line with its decision.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. authored a dissent, which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch. The dissenters accused the majority of addressing a different question than the one it initially agreed to consider. “What the court has done in this case makes a mockery of our rules,” Alito wrote.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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