By Lisa Soronen
In Madison v. Alabama the Supreme Court will decide whether a state may execute someone whose mental disability leaves him or her with no memory of committing the capital offense.
Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for shooting an off-duty police officer in 1985. He now suffers from vascular dementia and “corresponding long-term severe memory loss, disorientation and impaired cognitive functioning.”
As a result, among many other things, Madison can’t “independently recall the facts of the offense; the sequence of events from the offense, to his arrest, to his trial or previous legal proceedings in his case; or the name of the victim.”
In a two-paragraph opinion, an Alabama state trial court rejected Madison’s motion to suspend his execution due to incompetency. According to the court, Madison failed to provide a “substantial threshold showing of insanity.”
The Eighth Amendment protects against “cruel and unusual” punishment. In 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that someone who is “incompetent” can’t be executed. In 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman, the court stated, “today, no less than before, we may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life.”
According to Madison, the court has thus far declined to limit the underlying disorders which could render a person incompetent to be executed. Instead, in Panetti, the court stated it found no support for the position that “a prisoner is automatically foreclosed from demonstrating incompetency once a court has found he can identify the stated reason for his execution.”
Madison claims that is exactly what happened in his case. “[T]he court below disregarded the medical and scientific evidence that Mr. Madison suffers from dementia and corresponding memory deficits because, at the State’s continued insistence, the court determined that vascular dementia constitutes a different medical condition than what this Court has recognized as triggering the Eighth Amendment protections of Ford and Panetti.”
Madison further argues there is no retributive or deterrent purpose to executing someone who can’t remember he or she committed a crime. Finally, Madison argues that recent scientific and medical advancements, including neuroimaging, make it possible to diagnosis vascular dementia more accurately and objectively.
According to Alabama, “the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of a murderer who has lost his sanity, not his memory.” More technically, Alabama agrees a state can’t execute someone who is “insane and lacks a rational understanding of the reasons for his execution.”
But “[a] failure to recall committing a crime is distinct from a failure to understand why one is being punished for a crime. An inmate’s personal recollection of the crime is irrelevant to whether the inmate shares the community’s understanding of the crime, has a moral responsibility for committing the crime, or understands why he is being punished for the crime.”
Alabama also points out that “[d]espite several recent highly-publicized amnesia claims by death row inmates, no state has enacted legislation to preclude the execution of an inmate who cannot recall committing a crime.” Finally, Alabama expresses concern Madison’s proposed rule would lead to “false claims and manipulation.”
The Supreme Court will hear argument in this case on Oct. 2.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.