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SCOTUS Analysis: Madison v. Alabama

Fred O. Smith Jr. |

Because the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution bans cruel and punishment, it places certain limits on whom may be executed. First, the State may not execute children. Second, the State may not execute people with severe, permanent intellectual disabilities. Third, the State may not execute a person who is so mentally incapacitated as to not have a rational understanding of the basic reasons for the execution, in light of Ford v. Wainwright, and Panetti v. Quarterman. This past term, in the case of Madison v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court considered the scope of that last limitation.

Vernon Madison was sentenced to capital murder in the mid-1980s for killing a police officer, and the trial court sentenced him to death. Over the past four years, while on Alabama’s death row, his mental and physical health have declined significantly. Most significantly, he suffered from two major strokes in 2015 and 2016. Doctors subsequently diagnosed Madison with vascular dementia which, in the words of the Court, causes “disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss.” According to his legal briefs, this memory loss is severe. He sometimes asks when his mother will visit him, even though she has passed away. And, of particular relevance, he claims to no longer remember the crime that furnishes the basis of his execution. As two experts explained, while Madison understands “the nature of execution” in the abstract, he does not comprehend the “reasoning behind” the planned execution. Madison argued that in light of prior precedents established in Ford and Panetti, executing him in his current mental state violates the Eighth Amendment.

In an important respect, however, Madison’s case differed from prior cases in which the Supreme Court overturned execution on these grounds. The petitioners in Ford and Panneti suffered from significant psychotic delusions, whereas Madison does not. In Panetti, for example, Texas planned to execute a man who believed he was “part of spiritual warfare ... between the demons and the forces of the darkness and God and the angels and the forces of light.” As such, he believed that Texas intended to kill him in order “to stop him from preaching,” not because of his crimes. By contrast, Madison suffered no similar delusions. Alabama accordingly argued that since Madison was not “not delusional or psychotic,” neither his memory impairment nor dementia could suffice to satisfy the Panetti and Ford standards without “an expansion” of those decisions.

In February 2019, the Supreme Court concluded that a person may, in fact, be too mentally incapacitated to execute, even if the person does not suffer from psychotic delusions. The touchstone of the relevant analysis is not the specific mental illness from which the inmate suffers. Rather, the important consideration is “the prisoner’s inability to rationally understand his punishment.” After all, the reason it is cruel and unusual to execute such a person is that when someone fails to rationally understand their punishment, taking their life does not serve a retributive purpose. Moreover, taking the life of a person under those circumstances, the court reasoned, “offends morality.” Accordingly, the court vacated the Alabama courts’ determination that his execution may move forward. The Alabama courts are now tasked with assessing whether Madison can rationally understand his punishment.

Every death penalty case is important, as a person’s life sits in the balance. But in at least one respect, commentators contended after the decision that the Madison case is especially noteworthy, because of the composition of the justices who joined the majority opinion. To be sure, four justices who are generally considered by the commentators to be “liberal,” sided with Madison. However, they were joined by Chief Justice Roberts, who is generally considered to be “conservative.” “Roberts confirms he’s the new swing justice,” wrote one commentator. Only time will tell the accuracy of this account in a broader range of cases. But in the meantime, what we do know is that Madison lives to see another day.

 —Fred Smith Jr., associate professor of law