Mental Illness

U.S. Supreme Court Stays Alabama Execution to Consider Vernon Madison's Competency to Be Executed

The United States Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Vernon Madison to consider for a second time questions related to his competency to be executed. In a 6-3 vote, with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissenting, the Court halted Alabama's scheduled January 25 execution of Madison "pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari" he had filed seeking review of his competency to be executed. That petition was based upon new evidence of his deteriorating mental condition and that the doctor whose opinion state courts had relied upon in finding him competent had been addicted to drugs, was forging prescriptions, and was subsequently arrested. Madison—who has no memory of the crime he committed as a result of a succession of strokes that have caused dementia—has been challenging his competency to be executed for more than two years. In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Madison a stay of execution to consider his competency claim, and the Supreme Court deadlocked at 4-4 on whether to vacate that stay. The Eleventh Circuit subsequently ruled in March 2017 that Madison was incompetent to be executed, saying that the Alabama state courts had acted unreasonably in finding him competent. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision in November 2017, reinstating the state-court ruling and clearing the way for Alabama to issue the latest death warrant. After the Supreme Court's ruling, Madison's attorneys returned to the state courts with the new evidence. The state court, once again, denied him relief, leading to Madison's request to the Supreme Court for a stay. The stay will provide the Court time to review two separate petitions filed by Madison's lawyers. The first affords the Court the opportunity to address whether the Eighth Amendment permits "the State to execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him without memory of his commission of the capital offense." The second petition challenges the constitutionality of Madison's death sentence itself. Madison was sentenced to death by an Alabama trial judge despite the jury's recommendation that he receive a life sentence. Since the time of his sentence, Alabama has repealed the portion of its law permitting "judicial override" of a jury's life recommendation, and no state now authorizes that practice. Madison's execution date has attracted international attention because of his severely impaired mental condition. On January 24, David O'Sullivan, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States, wrote to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey with "an urgent humanitarian appeal" for her to reconsider the state's decision to execute Madison, citing "his major neurocognitive disorder." The letter "note[d] with concern that there is undisputed evidence that Mr. Madison has suffered multiple strokes, including a thalamic stroke resulting in encephalomalacia, that have damaged multiple parts of his brain, including those responsible for memory." It also reminded Alabama that "[t]he execution of persons suffering from any mental illness or having an intellectual disability is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights, as set forth in several international human rights instruments." Madison's lead counsel, Bryan Stevenson, said that he was "thrilled" by the Court's decision to grant a stay and that "[k]illing a fragile man suffering from dementia is unnecessary and cruel."

Condemned Alabama Prisoner Seeks Stay Based on Mental Incompetency and Arrest of Court-Appointed Expert

Lawyers for 67-year-old Vernon Madison (pictured), a death-row prisoner whose diagnosis of "irreversible and progressive" vascular dementia has left him with no memory of the crime for which he was sentenced to death, have filed a motion to stay his January 25 execution in Alabama. In a petition for writ of certiorari and motion for stay of execution filed January 18 in the U.S. Supreme Court, Madison's lawyers argue that the courts wrongly found Madison competent to be executed based upon the opinion of a drug-addicted psychologist who has been suspended from practice and arrested on felony charges of forging prescriptions for controlled substances. The petition says a series of strokes has left Madison with no memory of the murder for which he was sentenced to death, an IQ within the range of those with intellectual disability, and unable to recall the alphabet beyond the letter G. Madison is also legally blind, incontinent, and unable to walk independently. The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for Madison’s execution in a November 2017 opinion, overturning an earlier federal appeals court’s ruling that Alabama's state courts had unreasonably found Madison competent to be executed. The Supreme Court noted that, at that time, its review of the case was limited by federal habeas law, which the court said required it to defer to the Alabama court ruling. The court expressed no view "outside of the [federal habeas] context" whether Madison was competent to be executed. In their current appeal, Madison's lawyers presented unrebutted new evidence challenging the opinions offered by Dr. Karl Kirkland, the court-appointed psychologist on whom the state court had relied in finding Madison to be competent. The appeal argued that Kirkland's opinions were not credible because "he was suffering from a substance abuse disorder, using forged prescriptions to obtain controlled substances just four days after the hearing in this case and was ultimately charged with four felonies and suspended from the practice of psychology." After a brief hearing in a Mobile County court, the judge denied relief in a single sentence, saying that Madison "did not provide a substantial threshold showing of insanity." Because no appeal was available in the Alabama court system, Madison brought his appeal directly to the Supreme Court. This time, his appeal notes, the Court is not constrained by the federal habeas statute. Justices Sotomayor and Breyer both issued separate concurring opinions in November, with Justice Sotomayor pointing out that "whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense" is a question that has yet to be addressed by the Court, and Justice Breyer expressing his belief that the Court should take up the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty rather than develop law specific to older, infirm death-row prisoners. In 1994, the sentencing jury in Madison's case recommended that he be sentenced to life without parole, but the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Madison to death. In 2017, Alabama abolished the practice of judicial override.

Retired Lt. General: Exclude Mentally Ill Vets from the Death Penalty

Saying that the death penalty should “be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst in our society,’” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) has urged the Tennessee state legislature to adopt pending legislation that would bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, General Castellaw writes that the death penalty “should not be prescribed for those with severe mental illnesses, including those people with illnesses connected to their military service.” A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service. “[A]s many as 30 percent of the veterans from Vietnam through today’s conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” General Castellaw writes, some of whom have not “receive[d] the care they needed and the care our country promised.” The General tells the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with service-related PTSD and bipolar disorder. Brannan was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in which he had behaved erratically and had begged the officer to shoot him. Despte no prior criminal record and having a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration, Georgia executed Brannan. His final words were, “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them.” In arguing for a mental-illness exemption from the death penalty, General Castellaw writes, “[a]s Americans, we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. As Tennesseans, we can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness.” The Tennessee legislature is expected to consider Senate Bill 378 and House Bill 345 later this year. A similar bill under consideration in Ohio has recently received the support of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. In a January 3 editorial, the newspaper called Ohio Senate Bill 40 “common-sense, bipartisan—and humane.” Under both the Tennessee and Ohio proposals, people who commit murder but are found to have one of five severe mental illnesses would face a maximum sentence of life without parole.

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

NEW RESOURCE: Academy for Justice Report on Reforming Criminal Justice Tackles the Death Penalty

The Academy for Justice has recently released a new four-volume study, Reforming Criminal Justice, featuring research and analysis by leading academics and a wide range of proposals for criminal justice reform. The project, funded with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and produced with the support of Arizona State University and ASU's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, contains more than fifty chapters covering a wide range of subjects within the areas of criminalization, policing, trial procedures, and punishment—including a chapter on Capital Punishment by renowned death-penalty scholars Professors Carol S. Steiker (Harvard Law School) and her brother, Jordan M. Steiker (University of Texas School of Law). The Steikers—authors of the critically acclaimed 2016 book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, explore the challenges in reforming the institution of capital punishment, which they describe as being "in a state of flux and fragility." They attribute the near ten-fold decrease in new death sentences since 1996 and the near 70% decrease in executions since the peak in executions in 1999 to “growing concerns about the fairness, accuracy, and effectiveness of the capital justice process across the United States.” The Steikers point to endemic arbitrariness and unfairness resulting from the wide discretion afforded to prosecutors and juries in death penalty cases. Prosecutorial discretion, they say, has produced “wildly divergent capital charging decisions” between prosecutorial offices, making geography, rather than the circumstances of a murder, the chief determinant of whether a case is capitally prosecuted. In turn, they say, the practice of "death-qualification" allows prosecutors to exclude jurors who oppose capital punishment, and the jurors who are empaneled in capital cases exercise the broad discretion they are afforded to produce unfair sentences disproportionately influenced by irrelevant factors such as race and gender. The Steikers also challenge the notion that the reduced use of the death penalty means it is being used more effectively when it is imposed. They say that the death penalty is not limited to “the worst of the worst,” and so lacks meaningful retributive value, while its continuing arbitrariness impedes any arguable deterrent effect. Indeed, they say, offenders with mental illness are disproportionately represented on death row and continue to be disproportionately executed, despite widespread public support for excluding the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. They further question the accuracy of death-penalty verdicts, citing research that estimates more than 4% of those sentenced to death may be actually innocent. The Steikers argue that these systemic issues are “difficult to adequately address through constitutional regulation or legislative reform,” concluding that “the most appropriate path forward may well be moratorium or repeal, solutions embraced by a growing number of jurisdictions.” For states that opt to retain capital punishment, they recommend three major policy reforms: the establishment of capital defense offices at all levels (trial, direct appeal, and state postconviction) to “improve the delivery of capital representation services” in compliance with the American Bar Association's Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases; centralized state-wide charging processes to combat the politicization of the death penalty by local prosecutors and the resulting geographic arbitrariness in its appliation; and the adoption of legislation to exclude people with severe mental illness from capital prosecution and execution. 

Lawyer Says North Carolina Client's Brutally Traumatic Childhood Characteristic of Many on Death Row

The life of Terry Ball (pictured) "is worth remembering," says his appeal lawyer, Elizabeth Hambourger. She says Ball's life, which ended October 18 when he died of natural causes on North Carolina's death row, "hold[s] keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst." His "story of childhood trauma and brain damage" is characteristic of the backgrounds of many on death row, Hambourger says, but "was barely told at trial." Ball was convicted and sentenced to death for the cocaine-induced murder of his pastor's wife and attempted murder of his pastor in 1993, which occurred during a relapse of Ball's cocaine addition. His road to death row began when he was hit by a car at age 10, suffering injuries that kept him hospitalized for eight weeks. The head trauma changed his personality, but the severity of his brain damage was not detected at the time. He and a girlfriend ran away from home when he was 13, during which time he was abducted by a serial rapist, Jerry Wood, and repeatedly raped, kept high on drugs, and forced to steal, until he was able to escape nearly a month later. Rather than receiving mental-health services as a victim of sexual assault, Ball was adjudicated delinquent for running away and was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, where a state psychiatrist questioned his sexual identity, writing that his month-long "association" with his rapist "raised the question of possible homosexuality." Wood, who was never prosecuted for raping and abducting Ball, was later convicted of raping two other children and sentenced to 45 years in jail. Ball then turned to drugs as self-medication for his trauma. He later enlisted in, but was swiftly discharged from, the Navy and subsequently committed several violent drug-motivated robberies and was jailed for nearly killing two people. After his release from prison, he checked himself in to three treatment centers over the course of three years, all in an unsuccessful effort to overcome his addiction to crack cocaine. Hambourger says that Ball's story is a reminder that "[t]his is who we sentence to death: the most damaged, the most abused; traumatized children who grow into adults without learning how to cope with their fear and anger." In North Carolina, death sentences have fallen from an average of 28 per year in the five years spanning 1992-1996 to an average of one per year between 2012-2016. Hambourger believes that, had Ball's trial been held today, "this mitigating evidence would have been thoroughly presented and likely would have persuaded a jury to sentence him to life without parole instead of death."

Former Florida Death-Row Doctor: Experience of Veterans Highlights Death Penalty's Failures

A former Florida death-row doctor says the experience of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death provides a lens through which the public can better understand some of the failures of the state's death penalty and identify opportunities for meaningful reform of the criminal justice system. In a Veterans Day guest column in Florida Politics, psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Thornton (pictured) writes that "18-percent of Florida’s death row is made up of veterans of our military services." Their backgrounds of "childhood trauma, drug use and more," he says, is typical of the experiences of "almost all" of the prisoners on the state's death row. In conjunction with Veterans Day 2015, DPIC released a report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, that estimated at least 300 veterans were on state and federal death rows across the country, representing approximately ten percent of the nation’s death row population. The report highlighted the plight of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the lack of effective mental health intervention and support services, and the failures of defense counsel to investigate and present critical evidence to spare the veterans' lives. Dr. Thornton—whose more than 30-years of clinical experience includes three years overseeing medical and psychiatric care on Florida's death row—noted that two men whom Florida executed in 2017 were military veterans. Michael Lambrix, who was executed on October 5, was honorably discharged from the Army after becoming disabled in a training accident and subsequently developed a serious problem with drugs. Patrick Hannon, executed November 8, already suffered from drug abuse while in the military. "Neither," Dr. Thornton writes, "had the benefit of current intervention tactics deployed by the Veteran’s Administration to care for veterans with a history of trauma and drug abuse." Dr. Thornton advocates that Florida reallocate the money it spends on the death penalty for "more mental health treatment services, especially for military veterans, who deserve better treatment after sacrificing so much for our country." The state, he writes, should "place a moratorium on executions, and not just those of veterans, but everyone on Florida’s death row." Four veterans were executed in the United States in 2016: Georgia executed Brandon Jones and William Sallie, who had served in the Army, and Travis Hittson, who had served in the Navy; Alabama executed former Army reservist. Ronald Smith. Two men who served in the military have been exonerated in 2017: Air Force veteran Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. was exonerated in Florida in May and Rickey Dale Newman, a mentally ill former Marine suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder who was homeless at the time he was charged with capital murder in Arkansas.

Court Rulings Raise Questions of What Constitutes Incompetency and How is it Determined

Two recent high court rulings have raised questions of whether death-row prisoners are sufficiently mentally impaired to be deemed incompetent to be executed and who gets to make that determination. On November 7, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order staying the execution of death-row prisoner Jack Greene (pictured, left) to resolve whether that state's mechanism to determine competency—giving the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction ("ADC") sole discretion to make the decision—violates due process. One day earlier, a unanimous United States Supreme Court permitted the execution of Alabama death-row prisoner, Vernon Madison (pictured, right), to go forward—despite evidence that strokes have left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk independently, and with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death—saying that the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling that Madison had a rational understanding of his execution was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal constitutional law. Greene's lawyers had argued to the Arkansas Supreme Court that Arkansas had violated his right to due process when corrections director Wendy Kelley ruled him competent to be executed without having conducted any independent mental health evaluation or providing Greene's lawyers any opportunity to contest her determination. According to court filings, Greene is severely mentally ill and psychotic, delusionally believes that the ADC has destroyed his central nervous system, engages in "extreme physical contortions and self-mutilations" to attempt to combat the pain, and thinks the state and his lawyers are colluding to execute him to prevent disclosure of the injuries he believes have been inflicted by the state. In his Last Will and Testament, signed on November 1, he asked that his head be surgically removed after the execution and examined by a television reality show doctor in an effort to prove that he has been subjected to "percussion concussion brain injuries . . . inflicted by the Arkansas Department of Corrections since July 5, 2004." His lawyers have been seeking a court hearing on Greene's mental status to determine his competency. In ther Alabama case, the Supreme Court reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that had found Madison incompetent to be executed. The federal appeals court had rejected the state court's finding that Madison was aware of the reasons for his impending execution, saying that because of his stroke-induced "memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion," he lacked an understanding of the "connection between his crime and his execution." The Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that there was no clearly established law concerning when "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 as applied in his case." Prosecutors in Arkansas said that they will not seek rehearing of the decision in Greene's case, and state attorneys in Alabama have not yet asked for an execution date for Madison.

Pages