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Opinion analysis: Court orders new look at death sentence for Alabama inmate with dementia

Today the Supreme Court gave an Alabama death-row inmate at least a temporary reprieve, sending the case back to the lower courts for them to consider whether the inmate’s dementia leaves him so incompetent that he cannot be executed. The vote was 5-3, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s four more liberal justices in a ruling in favor of the inmate. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch; Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate in the case, which was argued before he joined the court.

Justice Kagan with opinion in Madison v. Alabama (Art Lien)

The decision came in the case of Vernon Madison, who has been on the state’s death row for over 30 years for killing a police officer, Julius Schulte, while Schlulte sat in his patrol car. A veteran of the Mobile police force, Schulte had responded to a domestic dispute at the house that Madison shared with his former girlfriend, and Schulte had remained on the scene to protect the girlfriend and her daughter while Madison moved out of the house.

Since then, Madison has suffered several strokes, which left him with dementia (among other things). As a result, his lawyer told the Supreme Court at oral argument in October, Madison’s memory is poor, and he is “bewildered and confused” most of the time.

A state court in Alabama refused to block Madison’s execution. In its view, although the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the state from executing someone who is incompetent because he is insane or delusional, those rulings do not apply to someone who argues that he is incompetent for other reasons, such as dementia.

Today the Supreme Court ordered the Alabama court to reconsider its ruling, in an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. The Supreme Court has already decided, Kagan explained, that an inmate who suffers from a mental illness cannot be executed if he does not understand why the state is trying to execute him. The focus of the court’s inquiry in such cases, Kagan continued, is the inmate’s comprehension of the reasons for his death sentence – his diagnosis doesn’t matter.

This means, Kagan concluded, that the Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit the execution of an inmate just because the inmate does not remember committing the crime for which he has been sentenced to death: The inmate could understand why he is being executed even if he doesn’t remember the crime. On the other hand, just as with mental illness, Kagan added, the Eighth Amendment would bar the execution of an inmate with dementia if he did not understand why he was being executed.

The Supreme Court did not itself weigh in on whether Madison can be executed. Instead, it sent the case back to the state courts for what Kagan herself described as a “do-over” because it was not clear to the justices whether the state courts believed that the Constitution would only bar Madison’s execution if he were mentally ill.

Kagan’s opinion laid out a roadmap for the state courts, instructing them that Madison’s competency to be executed hinges only on whether he understands “why the state wants to execute him.” In making that determination, she stressed, “the state court may not rely on any arguments or evidence tainted with the legal errors we have addressed. And because that is so, the court should consider whether it needs to supplement the existing record.”

In his dissenting opinion, Alito complained that what “the Court has done in this case makes a mockery of our Rules.” In particular, Alito suggested, Madison had pulled a bait and switch: Although he had asked the justices to decide whether the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of an inmate who can’t remember committing the crime for which he would be executed, once review was granted Madison adopted “an entirely different argument, namely, that the state court had rejected” his “claim that he is incompetent to be executed because the court erroneously thought that dementia, as opposed to other mental conditions, cannot provide a basis for that claim.” “Our whole certiorari system would be thrown into turmoil” if litigants were allowed to do this on a regular basis, Alito lamented, and he would have dismissed Madison’s petition as improperly granted.

This post was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Court orders new look at death sentence for Alabama inmate with dementia, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 27, 2019, 1:17 PM),