Vernon Madison, an Alabama death-row prisoner whose severe dementia led to a major Supreme Court decision on competency to be executed, has died in prison at the age of 69.

Madison’s case twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court on questions of the limits of federal court review of death-penalty cases and whether Alabama was entitled to execute an aging, infirm prisoner whose cognitive abilities were severely compromised. Madison’s attorneys argued that a series of strokes had left him without a rational understanding of the crime for which he was to be executed.

Madison (pictured) was one of Alabama’s oldest and longest-serving death-row prisoners, having been tried three times for the 1985 murder of a Mobile police officer. His first conviction was overturned because of racially biased jury selection. His second conviction was reversed because prosecutors presented improper expert testimony. At his third trial, the jury voted 8-4 to recommend that Madison receive a life sentence, but—in a practice no longer permitted in any state—the judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced him to death. In 2015 and 2016, he suffered multiple strokes, causing brain damage, vascular dementia, and amnesia, along with several other disabilities, including blindness and an inability to walk independently. He no longer had any memory of the 1985 murder for which he was sentenced to death or an understanding of what it means to be executed.

Madison was nearly put to death in 2016, but a 4-4 Supreme Court vote on the day of his execution left a federal appeals court stay in place. In March 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Madison was incompetent to be executed and that the state courts had unreasonably limited its review of his incompetency claim to whether he was suffering from a psychotic mental illness. In November 2017, citing limitations on federal habeas corpus review of state court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion stating that if the case reached the court in an appropriate procedural posture, “the issue would warrant full airing.”

Alabama then scheduled Madison’s execution for January 25, 2018. Madison’s lawyers again challenged his competency, presenting evidence of Madison’s continuing mental deterioration and new evidence that the doctor whose medical opinion had provided the basis for the state court’s finding that Madison was competent had been addicted to drugs and was forging prescriptions at the time of his testimony, and had since been arrested. Alabama’s courts refused to grant a hearing and Madison asked for Supreme Court review without the constraints of the habeas corpus law. On the day of the execution, the Court granted a last-minute stay to determine whether to review the case and, one month later, agreed to hear Madison’s claim.

On February 27, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its 1986 Supreme Court decision in Ford v. Wainwright prohibiting the execution of individuals who lack a rational or factual understanding of the fact that they will be executed or the reasons for their execution is not limited to cases of psychosis and mental illness, but includes other cognitive disorders such as dementia. In a 5-3 vote, the Court returned Madison’s case to the Alabama’s courts for an appropriate determination of Madison’s competency.

At the time of that decision, Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, who argued Madison’s case at the Court, said he was “thrilled that today the Court recognized that people with dementia like Vernon Madison, who cannot consistently orient to time and place, are protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.”

Because of his continuing physical and mental decline, Madison never received a state court determination of his competency.


Press Release, Vernon Madison, Alabama Death Row Prisoner with Dementia, Has Died, Equal Justice Initiative, February 24, 2020; Alabama Inmate Spared by Dementia Argument Dies on Death Row, Associated Press, February 24, 2020; Melissa Brown, Alabama death row pris­on­er Vernon Madison dies, Montgomery Advertiser, February 242020.