The Supreme Court will consider, for the third time, a case involving the execution of Vernan Madison, an elderly death-row inmate who can’t remember the crime he committed several decades prior. In May of 2016, the court denied an application to vacate a stay of his execution, and in November, 2017, Justices upheld a state court’s ruling allowing the execution to go forward.
In the latter opinion, the majority argued that the state court’s judgment was not “an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal Law,” a precondition for federal court jurisdiction under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Thus, the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal of the state court’s ruling was overridden by the highest court. Then, in January, the Supreme Court temporarily stayed Madison’s execution, while Justices considered the petition of certiorari, which was later granted in February. The Supreme Court will likely hear oral arguments in the fall, at which point Madison’s decades-long case may be resolved once and for all. The court’s decision on the matter could also have far reaching consequences for the death penalty and specifically aging death-row inmates.
According to the original petition, at stake in Madison v. Alabama are “the evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.” In 1985, Madison murdered a local police officer named Julius Schulte, after Schulte attempted to intervene in a domestic dispute between Madison and his ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Green. Now, years later, an aging Vernan Madison, who has suffered two strokes and dementia, can’t recall the murder or the sequence of events that led to the death of officer Schulte.
As a result of Madison’s strokes and cognitive decline, he often slurs his speech. He sometimes asks for his mother to be notified of his strokes, though she has been deceased for some time. Additionally, he doesn’t appear to be aware that there is a toilet in his cell, as he sometimes defecates in his pants, complaining that the guards will not let him go to the bathroom. Most importantly, he has no recollection of his crime.
One court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Karl Kirkland, acknowledged that the inmate could not remember the murder, but the doctor argued that Madison “understands the exact posture of his case at this point” and he seems to have a “rational understanding of . . . the results or effects.” By contrast, Dr. John Goff, a psychologist hired by Madison’s attorneys, argued that Madison does not understand the act for which he is being punished because he can’t remember “the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest to the trial or any of those details.”
The Court’s Past Decision
Though the court has weighed in on the case in the past, Justices have never directly addressed the underlying questions. In November, the court only touched the question of jurisdiction under the AEDPA, which according to the liberal Justices was not the appropriate statute for considering “substantial question[s] not yet addressed by the Court.”
Now, operating “outside of the AEDPA context,” the petitioners hope to argue that a person who can’t remember their crime should not be executed by the state. Two key Supreme Court precedents explicitly require an inmate to have a “rational understanding” of their crime and the imminent execution. Following these precedents, trial and state courts have found that, though Madison can’t remember his crime, he still understands that a crime was committed and that he will be executed as a result.
As noted by Stephen Breyer, this issue may be more widespread than imagined, as the average waiting period for death-row inmates is 19 years. “Given this trend, we may face ever more instances of state efforts to execute prisoners suffering the diseases and infirmities of old age,” Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion in November. He continued, “[W]e 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.” In short, Madison’s case could lend itself to a deeper critique of the death penalty as an institution.