Supreme Court Debates: Can a Man Who Can’t Recall His Crime Be Executed?

Alabama Supreme Court Building The Alabama Supreme Court heard arguments in a death penalty case posing the question: can the state execute a 68-year-old inmate for murder if the inmate is so mentally challenged he cannot remember the crime he committed?

By Christopher Zoukis

Early in its new term, the Alabama Supreme Court has heard arguments in Madison v. Alabama, a death penalty case posing the question: can the state execute a 68-year-old inmate for murdering a police officer in 1985 if the inmate is so mentally challenged he cannot remember the crime he committed?

In over three decades, Vernon Madison has three times been convicted for fatally shooting a Mobile police officer (the first two decisions were overturned on appeal, once because blacks were systematically kept off the jury, and once for prosecutors’ use of inadmissible evidence).

After 33 years in solitary confinement, Madison has experienced several strokes and has vascular dementia (which is irreversible and progressive), along with several other serious health conditions (including blindness, diabetes, incontinence, and limited mobility).

Represented by a prison reform group’s lawyer, Madison asked a state court to block Alabama’s continuing efforts to execute him, claiming it’s unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment since his mental impairments leave him unable to remember the crime he committed.

A state court held Madison was mentally competent enough to be executed, but a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit federal appeals court reversed. When the state appealed, Madison’s lawyer won a Supreme Court stay and review, although three justices (Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas) dissented.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the high court’s four liberals, has previously voiced skepticism on the constitutionality of capital punishment, and Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor could join him in restricting capital punishment for a potentially large group of elderly Death Row inmates who could claim mental disabilities make them ineligible for execution.

In oral argument on October 2, Madison’s lawyer argued two earlier Supreme Court decisions (Ford v. Wainwright in 1986 and Panetti v. Quarterman in 2007), which barred executions of some persons with mental disabilities should be read to include Madison.

In Ford, the high court held by a 5-4 majority the Eighth Amendment which precludes execution of insane persons and outlined how a court should go about determining whether an inmate sentenced to death is competent enough to be executed. The Panetti decision, another 5-4 ruling, held it unconstitutional to carry out a death sentence when the condemned prisoner cannot comprehend why he was being executed; the court also elaborated on procedural requirements for such determinations.

Even Madison’s counsel conceded a condemned prisoner must do more than show a severe mental illness to be too incompetent to be executed. Such a broad ruling, Alabama argues, would bring many new lawsuits by Death Row inmates claiming they can’t remember the crime that landed them there.

For a prisoner to escape execution, serious mental disabilities must keep a condemned prisoner from being able to appreciate what is happening and why. The state argues even if Madison cannot recall his crime, he understands he faces execution for murdering a police officer in 1985.

The outcome of his case likely hinges on whether five justices believe Madison’s mental state has deteriorated that far. To carve out a major new exception to the death penalty is likely to require Chief Justice Roberts to join the court’s four liberals – a possible, but unlikely, result.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at and