Supreme Court Grants Relief to Brain-damaged Killer

February 28, 2019 Updated: February 28, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court temporarily blocked the execution of convicted cop-killer Vernon Madison, whose brain injuries prevent him from remembering the murder, because it was unclear from the record if a lower court considered whether or not his dementia was severe enough to prevent him from understanding why he had been sentenced to death.

Madison, 68, killed Mobile, Alabama, police detective Julius Schulte in 1985 while the officer was mediating a domestic dispute. Madison had multiple debilitating strokes in prison in recent years and is now, among other maladies, blind, lame, and mute, according to his attorney.

The Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment may allow executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime, but at the same time it may also prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder with the exception of psychotic delusions, according to a decision Justice Elena Kagan read from the bench Feb. 27.

“The sole question on which Madison’s competency depends is whether he can reach a ‘rational understanding’ of why the State wants to execute him,” the majority opinion stated.

But the opinion held that it was unclear from reading the badly drafted decision handed down by the Circuit Court of Alabama, Mobile County, if that court applied the correct legal test.

“The state court’s brief 2018 ruling—which states only that Madison ‘did not prove a substantial threshold showing of insanity’—does not provide any assurance that the court knew a person with dementia, and not psychotic delusions, might receive a stay of execution.”

The vote to require the lower court to reconsider Madison’s petition was 5 to 3. Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate in the case.

In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito accused Madison’s lawyer, Bryan A. Stevenson, of a bait-and-switch. Stevenson “flagrantly flouted” court rules and the “counsel’s trick” was rewarded by the court’s majority that made “a mockery of our Rules.”

Stevenson convinced the court to review his client’s case to decide if the Eighth Amendment prohibits executing someone who can’t remember the crime that put him on death row, he wrote.

But before the justices in oral arguments on Oct. 2, 2018, Stevenson conceded the argument he had relied on was wrong and switched course, arguing instead, in Alito’s words, that “the state court had rejected petitioner’s 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 such a claim.”

Stevenson is executive director of a left-wing, anti-death-penalty group called the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined in the dissenting opinion.

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