Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 9 (Nov. 6, 2017)

In a per curiam decision in this capital murder case decided under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Court held that the state court did not unreasonably apply the law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed. The defendant was sentenced to death in an Alabama court. As his execution neared, the defendant petitioned the trial court for a suspension of his death sentence, arguing that due to several recent strokes, he had become incompetent to be executed. At a hearing on the matter, a court appointed psychologist noted the defendant’s significant post-stroke decline but testified that he understood the posture of his case and that the State was seeking retribution against him for his criminal act. A defense psychologist testified that the defendant’s strokes rendered him unable to remember numerous events that had occurred in the past. However, he found that the defendant was able to understand the nature of the pending proceeding, what he was tried for, that he was in prison because of murder, that Alabama was seeking retribution for that crime, and the sentence, specifically the meaning of a death sentence. The defense witness also opined that the defendant does not understand the act he is being punished for because he cannot recall the sequence of events from the offense through the trial and believes that he “never went around killing folks.” After the trial court denied the defendant’s petition, the defendant pursued federal habeas proceedings. The federal district court denied the defendant’s petition and the Eleventh Circuit reversed. That court found that because the defendant has no memory of his capital offense it inescapably follows that he does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution. On that basis, the federal appellate court held that the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant is competent to be executed was plainly unreasonable. The Court disagreed. Reviewing its prior case law, the Court concluded that those decisions did not clearly establish that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from the failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case. Thus, the state court did not unreasonably apply Supreme Court law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed because, notwithstanding his memory loss, he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.