SCOTUS to Take Up Capital Case of Man Who Can’t Remember His Crime

Madison v. Alabama to face thorny issue in death penalty cases

U.S. Supreme Court building / Getty Images

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would take up the case of an Alabama man sentenced to death who, since his conviction, has suffered multiple strokes that have rendered him unable to remember the details of his crime.

Madison v. Alabama concerns the case of Vernon Madison, who was convicted of the murder of police officer Julius Schulte. Madison's multiple strokes in the intervening three decades, combined with vascular dementia, have led, his lawyers claim, to him being unable to recall the details of his murder or understand the circumstances of his execution.

The case previously appeared before the court as Dunn v. Madison, a suit in which Madison sought relief under federal habeas corpus laws. In a unanimous decision, the court reversed the decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, concluding that Madison's appeal did not meet the "demanding" standards required for federal habeas relief under existing state law.

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Two liberal justices, while concurring with the conclusion of the decision in the federal case, wrote separately to comment on their desire to see the issue discussed more fully. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that "in this case, the restraints imposed by [federal law] … I agree, preclude consideration of the question." But, she wrote, that did not exclude the more substantive question of whether or not Madison could legally be executed.

"The issue 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. Appropriately presented, the issue would warrant full airing," Ginsburg wrote.

SCOTUS's grant on Monday looks to be just such a full airing. Rather than examining Madison's federal habeas appeal, the court will consider the merits of the Alabama state court's opinion specifically. The Alabama court found that Madison was competent to be executed, a decision that was in turn overturned in the Eleventh Circuit and then upheld by the Supreme Court.

SCOTUS's review of the state court's decision means it is able to consider the constitutionality of actually executing someone in Madison's situation. It poses two issues for consideration to both sides. The first is whether or not to apply the standard, first set up in Ford v. Wainwright, which established that execution of the mentally ill was "cruel and unusual punishment" for purposes of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition thereof. The second is whether or not Madison's particular inability to remember his crime, due to stroke and dementia, itself renders his execution "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment.

Regardless of how it is decided, Madison v. Alabama promises to add to the Supreme Court's sprawling death penalty precedent, a body of law which has blossomed since 1972's Furman v. Georgia submitted state execution protocols to constitutional review. Indeed, one member of the court has voiced his wholesale opposition to capital punishment: Justice Breyer, in his concurring opinion to the Dunn v. Madison decision, recalled his 2015 dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross which called for a full constitutional review of whether or not the death penalty itself constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

"Rather than develop a constitutional jurisprudence that focuses upon the special circumstances of the aged, however, I believe it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem—the constitutionality of the death penalty itself," Breyer wrote in his Dunn v. Madison concurrence.

Although Breyer has been outspoken in his skepticism of the death penalty, it is unlikely that his abolitionist sympathies will command a majority on the court as currently composed.

Madison v. Alabama also highlights an important issue with the death penalty as it operates in America today: The nearly interminable appeals process that follows any capital sentence. The Death Penalty Information Center, a pro-abolition research organization, estimates capital cases can cost millions of dollars and the average time between sentencing and execution has risen precipitously over the past several decades.

Madison, now 67, has been on Alabama's death row for over 30 years, and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future as the Supreme Court considers his appeal. The convicted murderer's strokes and dementia would not have posed a constitutional issue had he been executed more promptly.