WASHINGTON (CN) – A stroke survivor whose execution the Supreme Court blocked last month persuaded the justices Monday to take up his case.
Vernon Madison is on death row for the 1985 killing of Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile, Alabama, but he no longer has any memory of Schulte’s murder, telling one psychologist: “I never went around killing folks.”
The 67-year-old was set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. on Jan. 25 before the Supreme Court granted an eleventh-hour stay — putting the 67-year-old’s execution on hold for as long as it took to decide whether to grant a writ of certiorari.
Experts who have testified in the case note that Madison suffers significant memory impairment and a decline in cognitive functioning because of early-onset dementia and a series of strokes.
One psychologist told the court that Madison understood that the state was planning to execute him, but lacked the capacity to connect his punishment to a crime.
Though Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said they would have denied the stay application last month, the court did not issue any statement Monday in taking up the case.
In a pair of Florida death-penalty cases the court rejected Monday, however, three of the justices appointed to the court by Democrats dissented.
“Dale Middleton and Randy Tundidor were sentenced to death under a Florida capital sentencing scheme that this court has since declared unconstitutional,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Citing the 2016 case Hurst v. Florida, Sotomayor said the Florida Supreme Court has again “failed to address an important Eighth Amendment claim raised by capital defendants regarding the propriety of jury instructions that repeatedly emphasized that the jurors’ role in sentencing the defendants to death was merely advisory.”
Middleton and Tundidor are still on death row, Sotomayor said, because the Florida Supreme Court reasoned that the unanimity of the juries’ recommendations of death ensured that they had made the necessary findings of fact under Hurst.
“By doing so, the Florida Supreme Court effectively transformed the pre-Hurst jury recommendations into binding findings of fact with respect to the petitioners’ death sentences,” Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor says such logic has allowed the court to continually avoid Eighth Amendment implications.
“If those then-advisory jury findings are now binding and sufficient to satisfy Hurst, petitioners contend that their sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because the jury instructions in their cases repeatedly emphasized the nonbinding, advisory nature of the jurors’ role and that the judge was the final decisionmaker,” Sotomayor wrote. “This court has unequivocally held ‘that it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant’s death rests elsewhere.’”
Based on the same failure, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer also dissented last year when the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Truehill v. Florida.
“At least four times now, capital defendants in Florida have come to this court, their last resort before their death sentences become final, seeking our intervention on this issue,” Sotomayor wrote. “Each time, this court has refused to act, letting stand the petitioners’ death sentences despite the substantiality of their unaddressed Eighth Amendment challenges.
Breyer noted in a separate dissent that he agrees with Sotomayor.
“In my view, ‘the Eighth Amendment requires individual jurors to make, and to take responsibility for, a decision to sentence a person to death,’” Breyer added.
Death-penalty cases have inspired many impassioned opinions from Breyer. When the Supreme Court ruled against Madison at an earlier stage in his case last year, Breyer called out “the unconscionably long periods of time that prisoners often spend on death row awaiting execution.”
Breyer noted that Madison is also “one among a growing number of aging prisoners who remain on death row in this country for ever longer periods of time.”
“In 1987, the average period of imprisonment between death sentence and execution was just over seven years,” the opinion states. “A decade later, in 1997, the average delay was about 11 years. In 2007, the average delay rose to a little less than 13 years. In 2017, the 21 individuals who have been executed were on death row on average for more than 19 years.”
Among the three men Alabama executed in 2017, Breyer noted, 75-year-old Thomas Arthur spent 34 years on death row, Robert Melson spent 21 years on death row, and Torrey McNabb spent nearly two decades on death row.
“Given this trend, we may face ever more instances of state efforts to execute prisoners suffering the diseases and infirmities of old age,” he wrote. “And we may well have to consider the ways in which lengthy periods of imprisonment between death sentence and execution can deepen the cruelty of the death penalty while at the same time undermining its penological rationale.
“Rather than develop a constitutional jurisprudence that focuses upon the special circumstances of the aged, however, I believe it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem — the constitutionality of the death penalty itself,” the opinion concluded.