A SCOTUS Prospective: Madison v. Alabama and Capital Punishment of the Incompetent

Photo Credit: Equal Justice Initiative

By: Marina Batalias

What is the goal of America’s criminal justice system? Is it to punish criminals? Rehabilitate criminals? Deter criminals from committing other illegal acts? Most modern scholarship would suggest that the true objective of America’s criminal justice system is some combination thereof.[1] The Supreme Court will hopefully provide more insight into these goals at the start of the Court’s next term when it hears Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018.[2]

Vernon Madison was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for shooting and killing an off-duty police officer in Alabama in 1985.[3] Although his trial and appellate history through the state court system presents important issues regarding race and punishment in the southern states, the reason the Supreme Court will hear his case is to decide another important question: whether a state may execute a man who cannot recall his crimes nor understand the nature of his case after multiple, serious strokes resulted in debilitating brain damage and memory loss.[4] The answer to this question must be that executing Madison would fail to rationally justify any goal of the American criminal justice system.

Throughout his three-decade stint on death row, Madison faced a variety of health problems.[5] In January 2016, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with slurred speech, legal blindness, confined to a wheelchair, and incontinence.[6] Most importantly for the case at hand, the stroke left him severely brain damaged and suffering from advanced dementia; at a state competence hearing, a medical expert testified that Madison could no longer remember the nature of his conviction or the reason for his impending execution.[7]

In his Brief to the Supreme Court, Madison argues that he is incompetent to be executed as understood by the Court’s precedent and the policy objectives of the Eighth Amendment.[8] In Ford v. Wainwright, the Court recognized that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally incompetent based on “evolving standards of decency,”­ meaning the scope of the Eighth Amendment should be defined by contemporary values as well as the ethical standards contemplated when the Constitution was adopted.[9] However, the Court did not define which mental deficiencies constitute incompetence– thus, Madison argues severe dementia should be included, based on the Court’s broad language in Ford and subsequent cases.[10]

This approach would respect the various goals of the justice system discussed above because each goal is premised upon the criminal remembering and understanding his crime. Otherwise, any act of punishment, rehabilitation, or deterrence would be devoid of purpose. How can a man understand why he is being punished if he cannot recollect his crime? And how is a criminal deterred when he cannot remember the crime the State does not want him to repeat?

In response, the State argues that the facts be limited to the case at hand: although it concedes that under the right circumstances dementia could be considered sufficient to render a defendant incompetent to be executed, Madison’s own dementia does not render him incapable of understanding the circumstances and proceedings.[11] The State relies on its strong interest in punishing a convicted murderer, whether or not he remembers his crimes, in order to justify this conclusion.[12]

Although the Court’s precedent has established a few guiding principles for determining incompetence to stand trial, Madison illustrates the need for the Court to give the states greater clarity as to the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system.[13] If, as the State alleges in this case, the touchstone for justice is punishment, then the Court could very well decide that Madison can be sentenced to death, regardless of whether his dementia is so advanced that he cannot comprehend why he is being executed. If, instead, the Court truly does take into account “objective evidence of contemporary values before determining whether a particular punishment comports with the fundamental human dignity that the Amendment protects,” then it should reject the State’s argument and announce a broad, guiding standard for determining what sort of mental impairments render a person incompetent for execution.[14]

It is clear in this case that no theory of justice – rehabilitation, punishment, deterrence, or otherwise – could validate Vernon Madison being executed for a crime he cannot recall or understand. If the Court allows this result, under the guise of a “State’s interest in retribution and deterrence,” America’s criminal justice system would stand for little more than Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” mentality that pervaded some 3,700 years ago.[15]

[1] Kenneth Taylor, The Prison System, Philosophy Talk (May 21, 2011), https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/prison-system.

[2] Docket Search, Supreme Court of the United States, https://www.supremecourt.gov/search.aspx?filename=/docket/docketfiles/html/public/17-7505.html.

[3] Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Vernon Madison, Equal Justice Initiative (Jan. 25, 2018), https://eji.org/news/us-supreme-court-grants-stay-for-vernon-madison.

[4] Brief for Petitioner at i, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018). See also Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Vernon Madison, Equal Justice Initiative (Jan. 25, 2018), https://eji.org/news/us-supreme-court-grants-stay-for-vernon-madison (discussing Madison’s multiple re-trials due to intentionally racism and other misconduct by the prosecutor).

[5] Charles F. Lehman, SCOTUS to Take Up Capital Case of Man Who Can’t Remember His Crime, The Washington Free Beacon (Feb. 26, 2018, 2:10 PM), https://freebeacon.com/issues/scotus-take-capital-case-man-cant-remember-crime/.

[6] Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Vernon Madison, Equal Justice Initiative (Jan. 25, 2018), https://eji.org/news/us-supreme-court-grants-stay-for-vernon-madison

[7] Brief for Petitioner at 10, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018).

[8] Brief for Petitioner at 15, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018).

[9] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 406, 409­–410 (1986).

[10] Brief for Petitioner at 18–19, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018).

[11] Brief of Respondent at 2, 13, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018).

[12] Brief of Respondent at 13, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018).

[13] See e.g., Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 407, 409­–410 (1986); Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 959–60 (2007).

[14] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 406 (1986).

[15] Brief of Respondent at 13, Madison v. Alabama, cert. granted, No. 17-7505 (Feb. 26, 2018). See also Code of Hammurabi, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Code-of-Hammurabi (last visited Sept. 30, 2018).

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