Does the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment bar the execution of a prisoner with vascular dementia, who has no memory of his crime and the circumstances surrounding his imprisonment?
The Supreme Court will decide if it is lawful to execute a man who—years after committing murder—developed vascular dementia that affects his ability to understand his surroundings and prevents him from remembering the facts of his crime. Petitioner Vernon Madison contends that a broad range of mental conditions can prohibit defendants from understanding the circumstances of their executions and thus should prevent lawful execution of such defendants. The State of Alabama counters that a defendant’s memory of the murder is irrelevant to the analysis of whether the defendant’s execution is unlawful under the Eighth Amendment. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, in support of Madison call for an expansion of the category of mental disabilities that can render a person incompetent to be lawfully executed and contend that the execution of inmates with dementia would not serve deterrence purposes. However, fourteen states writing in support Alabama distinguish dementia and other age-related disabilities from intellectual disability and add that the retributive aspects of the death penalty are important enough to allow the execution of inmates with dementia and other age-related mental disorders. Accordingly, the Court’s decision will affect defendants who are exempt from execution as well as the litigation strategy of death row inmates as they approach the age of onset for age-related mental disorders during the lengthy appeals process.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman, a state may execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of his commission of the capital offense.
Whether evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment bar the execution of a prisoner whose competency has been compromised by vascular dementia and multiple strokes causing severe cognitive dysfunction and a degenerative medical condition that prevents him from remembering the crime for which he was convicted or understanding the circumstances of his scheduled execution.
In 1985, Petitioner Vernon Madison shot and killed Officer Julius Schulte in Mobile, Alabama and was sentenced to death by a jury for capital murder. Brief for Respondent, State of Alabama at 3; Petition for Writ of Certiorari, at 4. In 1986, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Madison's conviction on the grounds that the District Attorney’s Office discriminatorily excluded all African-American venire members in the original trial. Id.
During his second trial, Madison claimed he could not remember the shooting and pled not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. See id. at 4. However, Madison was convicted again for capital murder and sentenced to death. Id. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals again reversed Madison's second conviction however, citing prosecutorial misconduct where the prosecution introduced expert testimony based on facts not in evidence. Id. at 5.
During Madison's third trial in 1994, he was found guilty, despite his claims that the shooting was done in self-defense. Id. It was undisputed that Madison suffered from a long history of mental health issues and was taking anti-psychotic medication, as an expert testified to during the penalty phase. Id. at 5–6. The jury sentenced Madison to life imprisonment without parole. Id. However, the trial judge overruled the jury and sentenced Madison to death. Id. In 1998, the Alabama appellate courts affirmed Madison's case and the Alabama Supreme Court denied certiorari in 2006. Brief for Petitioner, Vernon Madison at 4; Petition at 7.
In 2009, Madison filed a federal habeas petition, which was denied by the district Court. Brief for Respondent at 5. However, in April 2012, the Court of the Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s denial for habeas relief and remanded the case for a Batson hearing. Petition at 7. The district court held that the original prosecution did not purposefully exclude African-American jurors. Brief of Respondent at 5. As a result, the district court denied Madison’s habeas petition, which the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in 2013. Petition at 7. The United States Supreme Court then denied certiorari review. Brief of Petitioner at 4.
In January 2016, Madison suffered a number of strokes. Brief of Respondent at 5. Madison was scheduled for execution in May 2016, but claimed incompetency due to the effects of his strokes. See Petition at 8. A court-appointed expert concluded that Madison suffered from cognitive decline from his recent strokes but found no evidence of psychosis, paranoia, or delusions. Brief of Respondent at 6. A separate expert called by Madison, however, found that Madison suffered from memory loss and could not recall his previous trials, Officer Schulte’s name, and the reason for his execution. Brief of Petitioner at 13, 15.
In April 2016, the United States Supreme Court denied Madison’s habeas petition. Petition at 14. In May 2016, Madison again filed a habeas petition and stay for execution in district court. Id. The district court denied the petition, but was reversed by the Eleventh Circuit, which granted habeas relief in 2017. Id. Then, however, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's finding. Petition at 14.
In December 2017, Madison again challenged his execution based on competency grounds. Brief of Petitioner at 15. On January 16, 2018, the Mobile County Circuit Court denied Madison’s petition to stay the execution. See Brief of Respondent at 2, Brief of Petitioner at 13, 15. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on February 26, 2018. Brief of Petitioner at 2.
DEFINING AND APPLYING THE FORD/PANETTI STANDARD FOR CATEGORIZING A DEFENDANT AS LEGALLY INCOMPETENT TO BE EXECUTED
Madison argues that Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman established a legal standard for incompetency that renders a large range of defendants incompetent to be lawfully executed. Brief for Petitioner, Vernon Madison at 20–21. Madison contends that he meets this standard for incompetency because multiple strokes and vascular dementia have left him unable to understand the reason for his execution. Id. at 26, 35–36. Madison asserts that Ford and Panetti clearly communicate that a vital component of the Eighth Amendment is the prevention of an incompetent person’s execution. Id. at 20–21. Madison further claims that the Eighth Amendment intentionally created a broad standard of categorizing a defendant as “incompetent” by declining to delineate which mental states or disabilities would result in the classification of a defendant as incompetent. Id. In Madison’s view, the Court’s imprecise discussion surrounding the status of incompetency is intentional and further underscores his argument that the standard for incompetency should be broad enough to include a diverse range of mental states and disabilities. Id. at 21.
Madison further posits that advancements in modern medicine occurring after Ford and Panetti allow for an expanded legal standard that protects a broader range of mental disorders under the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 29. Madison asserts that developments in the ease and efficacy of disorder diagnoses are relevant because, under Panetti, the opinion of medical professionals must be considered when analyzing whether a defendant’s medical status qualifies him or her for protection under the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 29–30. Madison cites to Moore v. Texas to note that modern standards of the medical community prevent the government from independently determining a person’s mental disorder. Id. at 29. Applying these arguments to his own case, Madison notes that modern medical imaging technology allowed a physician to describe Madison’s brain damage that led to Madison’s memory loss. Id. at 35. According to Madison, the advances in medical technological have allowed for a more precise understanding of Madison’s diminished mental capacity, including his ability to rationally understand his surroundings, and have allowed Madison’s neuropsychologist to conclude that Madison is incompetent for the purposes of execution because of his reduced ability to understand his surroundings. Id. at 35.
Alabama, in contrast, asserts that to meet the legal standard for incompetency, a defendant’s mental status must prohibit the defendant from rationally understanding the government’s reasons for ordering the defendant’s execution. Brief for Respondent, State of Alabama, at 21. Citing Panetti, Alabama claims that a defendant is capable of rationally understanding his punishment if his awareness of crime and punishment mirrors the general community’s understanding of these concepts. Id. In other words, Alabama contends that a determination under Panetti of whether a defendant rationally understands his crime and his punishment should not consider whether a defendant remembers committing his crime. Id. Madison, Alabama reasons, rationally understands his punishment because he understands the connection between crime and punishment and he understands that his punishment is the result of his crime. Id. at 18. Alabama claims that Madison’s insistence that his punishment is unjust and his denial of his responsibility for murdering Officer Schulte further underscores Madison’s awareness of crime and punishment as they apply to his situation. Id. at 22.
Alabama counters that Madison’s interpretation of Ford and Panetti expands the incompetency standard, encouraging manipulation and gamesmanship. Id. at 41. Alabama cautions that such an expansion would incentivize defendants to falsely claim a mental disability to avoid execution. Id. Alabama contends that psychiatrists often disagree when classifying mental illness and that Madison’s argument does not reveal the difficulty of diagnosing mental disorders. Id. at 42. Additionally, Alabama notes that as the number of federal and state appeals of capital punishments has grown, the average age of a defendant on death row has increased. Id. at 45. Thus, Alabama argues, the continued increase in average age would escalate the likelihood that some defendants will falsely assert an age-related mental disability to be classified as incompetent under the broader standard suggested by Madison. Id. at 41. Arguing for a narrower standard of incompetency, Alabama counters, would be more in line with Panetti’s imposition of a high burden on a defendant arguing that his mental state should prevent his execution. Id. at 43.
UNDER CURRENT STANDARDS OF DECENCY, SHOULD MADISON’S EXECUTION BE CONSIDERED A CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT?
Madison characterizes his mental state as an inability to understand the circumstances of his execution and asserts that modern standards of decency prohibit his execution under the Eighth Amendment. Brief of Petitioner at 18. Madison cites Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia to claim that standards of decency prohibit the execution of defendants whose cognitive function is impaired due to age or intellectual disability. Id. Madison then claims that society’s standards of decency necessarily prohibit the execution of defendants who lack the capacity to understand why they are being executed. Id. at 17–18. Madison contends that advances in medical testing have allowed his doctors to better assess how his mental disorder impacts his brain function, which in turn has important implications on preventing the enactment of a cruel and unusual punishment in his case. Id. at 33, 35. Madison asserts that the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause caused Ford to limit the category of medical testing and diagnoses used as evidence to establish incompetence. Id. at 20–21. In other words, Madison argues, by considering a wider range of mental disorders and evidence when determining if a defendant’s execution would violate the Eighth Amendment, the court has recognized the importance of preventing cruel and unusual punishments that would occur if advances in medical diagnoses were not considered when categorizing a defendant’s disability as eligible to be protected under the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 35.
Alabama, focusing on objective indicators of standards of decency, characterizes Madison’s mental state as a memory disorder that does not exempt him from execution under the Eighth Amendment. Brief for Respondent, State of Alabama, at 27. Alabama asserts that the Eighth Amendment does not prevent the execution of defendants who do not remember committing the crime for which they are being punished. Id. Alabama claims that the Court has provided a clear analysis for determining when a defendant’s execution is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Id. Alabama notes that standards of decency largely originate from and are best measured by state and federal legislation. Id. at 32. Alabama notes that no state has passed a law prohibiting the execution of a defendant suffering from memory loss due to dementia. Id. Therefore, Alabama contends, there is no evidence that executing a defendant with Madison’s condition would violate standards of decency. Id. As an example, Madison notes that Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri executed defendants with mental conditions similar to Madison’s and, despite public awareness of the executions, none of the executions were followed by legislative action. Id. at 33. Alabama concedes that in 2006, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association recommended that no defendant with a severe mental disorder should be executed. Id. at 34. Alabama further notes, however, that no state legislature, state court, or federal court has followed this recommendation; thus, Alabama asserts, the recommendation does not reflect current standards of decency and should not influence the interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. Id.
VASCULAR DEMENTIA AND INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY
The American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association (“Associations”) in support of Vernon Madison assert that vascular dementia and intellectual disability should be treated the same, as the only difference between the two is when they affect defendants. Brief of Amici Curiae American Psychological Association et al., in Support of Petitioner at 8. The Associations broadly define vascular dementia as a progressive disease that causes a person to have declining intellectual ability and argue that, since courts should consider a person’s diminished understanding as a factor to determine incompetency, executing a person with vascular dementia would be inhumane as they cannot comprehend their punishment. Id. at 7, 12–13. Furthermore, the Associations assure courts that the danger of misdiagnosis or false cases is remote because mental health professionals have the training coupled with technological advancements to diagnose genuine cases. Id. at 16–17. Therefore, the Associations contend, courts should not worry whether more prisoners would claim incompetency, as mental health professionals can screen against false cases of dementia. Id. at 17.
Texas and thirteen states (collectively the “States”), in support of the state of Alabama, counter that courts have already determine intellectual disability based on three characteristics: low intelligence, limited adapted ability, and emergence of these two characteristics before the age of eighteen. Brief of Amici Curiae Texas et al., in Support of Respondent at 9–10. Given this, the States contend that vascular dementia and loss of memory does not render someone automatically incompetent merely because that person would have had the capacity to understand whether to plead guilty in an earlier proceeding and found competent when convicted. Id. at 7–8. Furthermore, the States argue, that a person like Madison, who has developed vascular dementia, should not be treated like a person with an intellectual disability as their vascular dementia manifested after the offense was committed. Id. at 12. Finally, the States contend that society is not ready to recognize a prohibition against executing a person with dementia that exists with those with intellectual disability. Id. at 11.
PURPOSE OF THE DEATH PENALTY
The Associations contend that the execution of an insane person would not only be unreasonable based on human dignity, but it would also fail to deter other criminal behavior. See Brief of Amici Curiae American Psychological Association et al., in Support of Petitioner at 5–6. Given these arguments, the Associations contend that executing a person with vascular dementia would not serve society’s interest retribution or deterrence, regardless of the individual's crime. See id. at 7.
The National Association of Police Organizations (“NAPO”) in support of Alabama argues that States have traditionally imposed increased penalties for crimes against police officers and cites recent federal legislation to demonstrate a national consensus to protect law enforcement. Id. at 5, 8, 9. NAPO claims that the death penalty in particular represents society’s outrage against murder, especially against police officers and points to the way in which some states who abolish the death penalty recognize the need to reinstate capital punishment against those who have killed police officers. Id. at 5, 9–10. In this regard, NAPO posits that a defendant’s memory loss does not matter or makes them less culpable. Id. at 10.
The authors would like to thank Professor John H. Blume for his insights.
- Jess Bravin, Supreme Court to Consider Whether Alabama can Execute Inmate with Dementia, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 26, 2018).
- Adam Liptak, Too Old to be Executed? Supreme Court Considers an Ageing Death Row, New York Times (Mar. 5, 2018).