Court Battles

Supreme Court blocks execution of inmate with dementia

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new look at the case of an Alabama man on death row who suffers from dementia and claims he can no longer remember the crime he committed.

In a 5-3 decision, the court blocked the execution of Vernon Madison, who’s on death row for killing a police officer in 1985. His attorneys argued that his death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he suffers from vascular dementia and can no longer remember committing the murder.

{mosads}The court said Wednesday that forgetting the crime alone was not enough to spare Madison from the death penalty but that he can’t be killed if a mental disorder prevents him from understanding why he is being punished.

“The Eighth Amendment doesn’t care about the particular diagnosis — schizophrenia, dementia or something else entirely,” Justice Elena Kagan said in delivering the court’s ruling from the bench.

“If a person suffering from any mental disorder — dementia included — is unable to rationally understand why the state wants to execute him, then the Eighth Amendment doesn’t allow the execution.”

Because the justices couldn’t be sure if the state court has recognized that Madison’s dementia might also make him unable to rationally understand why he’s being punished, they ordered the state court to reconsider his case.

“The state court, we have little doubt, can evaluate such matters better than we,” Kagan wrote in the majority opinion. “It must do so as the first step in assessing Madison’s competency—and ensuring that if he is to be executed, he understands why.”

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberal wing in the majority.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a scathing dissent, which Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined.

Alito said when the court took the case it agreed to answer the specific question of whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a murderer who can’t remember the murder he committed. But he said Madison’s counsel tricked the court and instead argued that the state court had rejected Madison’s claim that his dementia made his death sentence unconstitutional.

“Counsel’s tactics flagrantly flouted our rules,” Alito said.

He argued that the court’s entire system of review would be thrown into turmoil if the justices allowed counsel to obtain review of one question and then switch to an entirely different question after the court agreed to take a case.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh took no part on the consideration of the case, which was heard before he was confirmed to the court.

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