It has been over 33 years since Vernon Madison shot and killed Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile, Alabama. Schulte had come to Madison’s house to protect Madison’s former girlfriend and her daughter while they moved out; Schulte was sitting in his car when Madison shot him twice in the back of the head. Madison was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, but next week the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on whether it would violate the Constitution to execute Madison when he has no memory of his crime.
Madison, now in his late 60s, has been on death row for over 30 years. During that time, he has had several strokes, which have left him with significant brain damage. Madison suffers from dementia and long-term memory loss; he is also legally blind and can no longer walk without assistance. Since Madison’s stroke, his lawyers tell the Supreme Court, Madison “has repeatedly asked for his mother to come and visit him even though she has been dead for years.”
Madison also cannot remember any of the details of the crime that put him on death row, including Schulte’s name, the events surrounding the crime, or his trial. After his execution was scheduled for January of this year, Madison went to state court to challenge his competency to be executed, armed with evidence that a court-appointed expert who had evaluated him, and whose findings had played a key role in earlier rulings that Madison was competent to be executed, was abusing narcotics and was eventually suspended from practicing psychology. The state court would have allowed Madison’s execution to go forward, but the Supreme Court stepped in and – over the objection of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – put the execution on hold while it considered Madison’s request for review.
In his brief on the merits at the Supreme Court, Madison contends that executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he does not understand why he is being executed. To support this argument, Madison points to two earlier decisions by the Supreme Court: Ford v. Wainwright, in which the justices ruled that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of inmates who are mentally incompetent; and Panetti v. Quarterman, in which the justices held that the lower courts should have considered an inmate’s claim that he suffered from “a severe, documented mental illness that is the source of gross delusions preventing him from comprehending the meaning and purpose of” his death sentence.
Taken together, he asserts, these cases “require that states refrain from executing an individual,” like Madison, “whose verifiable cognitive impairments render him incompetent to rationally understand the circumstances surrounding a scheduled execution.” This is particularly true, Madison adds, because executing an inmate who does not understand why he is being punished does not serve the purposes of the death penalty: The execution would not deter future crimes, nor would it punish Madison for his conduct.
For its part, Alabama casts doubt on whether, as a result of his health problems, Madison cannot actually recall his crime: Madison, the state notes, “first claimed that he could not remember murdering Officer Schulte in 1990, long before he purportedly suffered from dementia-related amnesia.” Moreover, the state observes, Madison remembers many details of his life and criminal history; his physicians reported that he can provide consent for medical procedures and sometimes declines medications if he does not like the side effects.
But in any event, the state continues, whether Madison remembers his crime is irrelevant to whether he should be executed. Although the Constitution does prohibit the execution of someone who is incompetent and cannot understand the reasons for his execution, Madison does not fit that description: Even if he doesn’t remember killing Schulte, a court-appointed psychologist has concluded that “Madison has a rational understanding that he is to be executed for killing a police officer in 1985.” The Eighth Amendment does not, the state emphasizes, prevent Alabama from executing Madison simply because he says he does not remember committing his crime.
When the justices consider Madison’s case next week, it will be the second time that the Supreme Court has done so: In 2017, the court reversed (without briefing on the merits or oral argument) a ruling by a federal appeals court that would have vacated Madison’s sentence. Discussing the high bar under federal habeas law for a federal court to overturn a state court’s ruling in a criminal case, the court’s unsigned opinion stressed that its decisions in Ford and Panetti had not “clearly established that 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 this case.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote an opinion in which she agreed with the court’s disposition of Madison’s case but also noted that the question “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 substantial question not yet addressed by the Court.”
During this round of proceedings at the Supreme Court, the justices will consider the question of Madison’s competency to be executed on the merits, rather than under the higher standard created by federal habeas law. But it also seems increasingly likely that only eight justices will hear oral argument in Madison’s case. With Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch already having signaled that they are likely to rule against him, Madison will almost certainly need the votes of all four of the court’s more liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts to prevail and stave off his execution – which could be a tall order. We’ll have a better sense of where the justices might be heading after next week’s oral argument.
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.