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Death-Row Inmate With Dementia Prevails at High Court

A narrow Supreme Court majority ordered new proceedings Wednesday in the case of an Alabama man with dementia who no longer remembers committing the murder that landed him on death row.

WASHINGTON (CN) - A narrow Supreme Court majority ordered new proceedings Wednesday in the case of an Alabama man with dementia who no longer remembers committing the murder that landed him on death row.

For the last several decades, Vernon Madison has been awaiting execution for the murder of Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile who had been sitting in his squad car in 1985 when Madison fired several shots into Schulte’s back and head.

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered new proceedings in Alabama for Vernon Madison, pictured here in this undated photo provided by the state Corrections Department. Suffering from dementia, Madison can no longer remember killing a police officer in 1985. The Supreme Court ruled on Madison's case on Feb. 27, 2019.

Most of Madison's sentence has been served in solitary confinement, his lawyer told the Supreme Court last year at oral arguments, and his mind is so atrophied today that he can no longer even locate the toilet in his 5-by-8 foot cell.

“You can explain he has a toilet, that he can use it, but he routinely urinates on himself because he can’t recall where it is and asks the guards for help,” said attorney Bryan Stevenson.

But otherwise Madison barely speaks. The 68-year-old is legally blind and he suffers from encephalomalcia, meaning several areas of his brain tissue are dead. Two strokes during Madison's incarceration have left him near death. His IQ level is 72, and Stevenson said his client's memory score is even lower.

Writing for the 5-3 majority Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan said Madison's case presents two Eighth Amendment questions, the answers to which now require additional proceedings before the state court in Alabama.

As to the first question, whether it would violate the Eighth Amendment to execute a prisoner who no longer has any memory of his crime because of a mental disorder, Kagan said no, "because a person lacking such a memory may still be able to form a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence."

The second consideration is whether the Eighth Amendment applies similarly to a prisoner suffering from dementia as to one experiencing psychotic delusions.

"We (and, now, the parties) think so, because either condition may — or, then again, may not — impede the requisite comprehension of his punishment," the ruling states.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall predicted that Madison will lose when the case returns to state court.  

"Vernon Madison was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Mobile police officer Cpt. Julius Schulte, and he is competent to be executed for this heinous crime despite his claims that he cannot remember it,” Marshall said in an email. “The U.S. Supreme Court has now held twice that the lack of memory is not alone sufficient to bar execution. We expect that when the lower court revisits the matter on remand from the Supreme Court, it will once again find that Madison is competent to finally face the justice that he has so far evaded for nearly 34 years."

Panetti v. Quarterman, an Eighth Amendment case the Supreme Court decided in 2007, was critical to today’s holding.

“That decision asks about understanding, not memory — more specifically, about a person’s understanding of why the state seeks capital punishment for a crime, not his memory of the crime itself,” Kagan wrote. “And the one may exist without the other. Do you have an independent recollection of the Civil War? Obviously not. But you may still be able to reach a rational — indeed, a sophisticated — understanding of that conflict and its consequences. Do you recall your first day of school? Probably not. But if your mother told you years later that you were sent home for hitting a classmate, you would have no trouble grasping the story. And similarly, if you somehow blacked out a crime you committed, but later learned what you had done, you could well appreciate the state’s desire to impose a penalty. Assuming, that is, no other cognitive impairment, loss of memory of a crime does not prevent rational understanding of the State’s reasons for resorting to punishment. And that kind of comprehension is the Panetti standard’s singular focus.”

As in the 1986 decision Ford v. Wainwright, Panetti holds “that it ‘offends humanity’ to execute a person so wracked by mental illness that he cannot comprehend the ‘meaning and purpose of the punishment.’”

“But that offense to morality must be much less when a person’s mental disorder causes nothing more than an episodic memory loss,” Kagan wrote. “Moral values do not exempt the simply forgetful from punishment, whatever the neurological reason for their lack of recall.”

Kagan explains that the Panetti is satisfied when memory “loss combines and interacts with other mental shortfalls to deprive a person of the capacity to comprehend why the state is exacting death as punishment.”

Full relief for Madison will turn on whether the state court that ruled against him based on the incorrect belief “that only delusions, and not dementia, can support a finding of mental incompetency.”

“If the state court used the word ‘insanity’ to refer to a delusional disorder, then error occurred: The court would have denied a stay on the ground that Madison did not have that specific kind of mental illness,” Kagan wrote. “And the likelihood that the court made that mistake is heightened by the state’s emphasis, at that stage of the proceedings (as at others), that Madison was ‘not delusional or psychotic’ and that ‘dementia’ could not suffice to bar his execution absent ‘an expansion of Ford and Panetti.’”

But Justice Samuel Alito slammed this point as trickery in an angry dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

Whereas Madison’s initial petition to the court focused on the constitutionality of executing a person with no memory of his crime, Alito said the inmate’s counsel shifted gears to the mental-condition argument once certiorari was granted.

“In the past when counsel have done this, we have dismissed the writ as improvidently granted,” Alito wrote. “We should do that here.

“Instead, the majority rewards counsel’s trick. It vacates the judgment below because it is unsure whether the state court committed the error claimed in petitioner’s merits brief. But not only was there no trace of this argument in the petition, there is nothing in the record showing that the state court ever adopted the erroneous view that petitioner claims it took.”

Madison's attorney Stevenson serves as executive director at the Equal Justice Initiative.

"We are thrilled that today the court recognized that people with dementia, like Vernon Madison who cannot consistently orient to time or place, should be protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment,” Stevenson said in an email. “Prisoners with dementia or severe mental illness are extremely vulnerable, that the court has recognized that they cannot be subject to abusive or cruel treatment under the the Eighth Amendment is enormously important if our system is going to function in a humane and just manner."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate in the court's consideration or decision of the case, having only been confirmed days after arguments were held on Oct. 2.

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