Justices Appear to Favor Prisoner with Dementia in Case Seeking to Block Alabama Execution

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018 on whether an Alabama death-row prisoner who has vascular dementia, brain damage, cognitive deficits, and memory loss from two near-fatal strokes is competent to be executed. During oral argument, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the justices that, as a result of severe and progressively worsening dementia, Vernon Madison lacks a rational understanding of why Alabama intends to put him to death and is therefore incompetent to be executed. A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to Madison's position, including Chief Justice John Roberts who is now regarded as the swing vote in death-penalty cases. The issues before the Court narrowed significantly as a result of concessions made by both sides at the argument. Madison's pleadings had argued that the Court's decisions in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright and 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman on competency to be executed applied beyond the limited circumstances of insanity and delusional mental illness at issue in those cases. "For purposes of retribution, there is no moral or constitutional distinction between a person who cannot 'recogni[ze] … the severity of the offence as a result of delusions and a person who is unable to do so as a result of dementia, cognitive decline, and memory deficits," his lawyers wrote. Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan conceded that incompetency caused by severe dementia could also qualify. Stevenson, on the other hand, conceded in response to questioning by Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan that merely having no memory of committing the offense does not make a prisoner incompetent to be executed. Rather, Stevenson said, the memory loss must be the product of a medical or physical condition that also affects the prisoner's understanding of why he or she is to be executed. Stevenson said Madison's severe vascular dementia has left him with no memory of having killed a police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance in 1985. An MRI has shown that Madison has suffered substantial brain damage, and psychological testing has documented significant cognitive decline accompanied by IQ-loss that now places him in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. Madison's dementia has also left him disoriented as to date and time and without the ability to rationally comprehend his legal situation. He is legally blind, Stevenson said, has slurred speech, cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G or retain basic information, cannot walk without assistance, and continually soils himself because he does not know how to use the toilet in his five-by-eight cell. Madison's physical disabilities, Stevenson said, provide evidence illustrating the extent to which Madison's vascular dementia has affected all aspects of his life. Stevenson argued that Alabama's courts improperly rejected Madison's evidence of incompetency, focusing only on whether his impairments were caused by insanity, psychosis, or delusions. Govan asserted in response that by reciting the correct legal standard from Ford and Panetti and making reference to the testimony concerning Madison's impairments, Alabama had in fact considered that evidence. He further disputed whether Madison is incompetent at all, stating that Alabama would find him competent to stand trial in his current condition. Stevenson closed the argument by telling the Court that the "awesome power" to execute a person who no longer poses an immediate threat must "be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely." The Court, Stevenson said, reviews facts and circumstances "through the window of the Constitution ..... But the Eighth Amendment isn't just a window. It's a mirror." Our norms and values "are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people," Stevenson said. "And what we've argued is that dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency."

Madison has already spent 33 years on death row. His conviction has been overturned twice, first because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded Black jurors from serving on his case, then because prosecutors presented improper expert testimony. At Madison's third trial, his jury recommended a life sentence, but an Alabama judge overrode that recommendation and imposed a death sentence, a practice no longer allowed by any state.

(Richard Wolf, Supreme Court appears sympathetic to death row prisoner who cannot remember his crime, USA Today, October 2, 2018; Mark Sherman, Supreme Court Could Limit Execution of People With Dementia, Associated Press, October 2, 2018; Adam Liptak, Justices Weigh Case of Condemned Inmate Who Cannot Recall His Crime, New York Times, October 2, 2018; Amy Howe, Argument analysis: A narrow victory possible for death-row inmate with dementia?, SCOTUSblog, October 2, 2018; Mark Joseph Stern, John Roberts, Swing Vote: The chief justice looks poised to join the liberals in a major death-penalty case, Slate, October 2, 2018; Robert Barnes, Supreme Court contemplates whether man who cannot remember crime may be executed, Washington Post, October 2, 2018.) Read the transcript of the oral argument in Madison v. Dunn. See U.S. Supreme Court and Mental Illness.