Madison v. Alabama
Can the death row inmate be executed if he suffers from dementia and can’t remember committing the murder?
Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for shooting and killing a police officer from close range. The murder was over 30 years ago.
During Madison’s time on death row, he has suffered several strokes and has now been diagnosed with Vascular Dementia and Cognitive Impairment. He has presented testimony from a psychologist saying he can’t remember killing the police officer, nor “the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest to the trial or any of those details.”
Although Madison suffers from cognitive impairment (the ability to rationally understand the world) in addition to memory loss, the Alabama trial court ruled that Madison does understand that he faces the death penalty, and he understands what the death penalty is.
What questions are relevant here?
Two points might be relevant to whether Madison can be executed in his current psychological state. However it’s possible the Supreme Court will only consider one of them.
Does Madison have a rational understanding of his punishment? Put another way, does he understand the connection between his acts and the sentence? There’s a 2007 Supreme Court case (Panetti v. Quarterman) that says he must - or else he is considered “insane” and the Eighth Amendment won’t allow his execution. The Alabama trial court already did its best to interpret existing precedent as it applies to Madison’s case, and the Supreme Court said the Alabama court did an acceptable job (Dunn v. Madison). However, the Court indicated it may still need to address the next question…
Can Madison really “rationally understand” his execution if he genuinely cannot remember committing the acts that gave rise to his sentence? This is the question the Supreme Court said it would address in the current case. This is the question that could change the current rule on “insanity,” or at least clarify it.
Is memory essential?
What’s criminal punishment all about anyway? How does a government justify the punishments it gives? It’s a philosophical question that results in a couple of rationales: deterrence and retribution.
Deterrence. We punish because we want to deter the criminal and the rest of society from performing such wrongful acts in the future.
Retribution. We punish because we want to “get back at” the criminal who has done such an awful act.
The Supreme Court will consider whether these two rationales are still served by giving the death penalty to someone who can’t remember committing the act of murder.
The Court also will consider what the Founders were thinking when they prohibited “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Eighth Amendment. The leading Supreme Court case on this issue, Ford v. Wainwright (1986), notes that, in some views, the prohibition actually protects society by ensuring the dignity of our actions. In other words, to protect the dignity of our society and the legitimacy of our government, we can’t engage in acts that just plainly offend humanity.
Does executing someone who has no memory of his wrongful acts offend humanity? This question - perhaps the heart of the case - could fall on ideological lines and the desire to empathize with a criminal versus the victim’s family.