Madison v. Alabama, 586 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 718 (Feb. 27, 2019)

If a defendant with no memory of his crime rationally understands why the State seeks to execute him, the Eighth Amendment does not bar execution; if a defendant with dementia cannot rationally understand the reasons for his sentence, it does. What matters, explained the Court, is whether a person has a “rational understanding,” not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.

            The Court noted that in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399 (1986), it held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has “lost his sanity” after sentencing. It clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman by focusing on whether a prisoner can “reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.” Here, Vernon Madison killed a police officer in 1985. An Alabama jury found him guilty of capital murder and he was sentenced to death. In recent years, Madison’s mental condition sharply deteriorated. He suffered a series of strokes, including major ones in 2015 and 2016. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia, with attendant disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss. Madison claims that he can no longer recollect committing the crime for which he has been sentenced to die. After his 2016 stroke, Madison petitioned the trial court for a stay of execution on the ground that he had become mentally incompetent, citing Ford and Panetti. The trial court found Madison competent to be executed. Madison then unsuccessfully sought federal habeas corpus relief. When Alabama set an execution date in 2018, Madison returned to state court arguing again that his mental condition precluded the State from going forward, noting, in part, that he suffered further cognitive decline. The state court again found Madison mentally competent. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

            The Court determined that a person lacking memory of his crime may yet rationally understand why the State seeks to execute him; if so, the Eighth Amendment poses no bar to his execution. It explained: “Assuming, that is, no other cognitive impairment, loss of memory of a crime does not prevent rational understanding of the State’s reasons for resorting to punishment. And that kind of comprehension is the Panetti standard’s singular focus.” It continued, noting that a person suffering from dementia or a similar disorder, rather than psychotic delusions, may be unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence; if so, the Eighth Amendment does not allow his execution. What matters, it explained, “is whether a person has the ‘rational understanding’ Panetti requires—not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.” The Court continued, noting that the “standard has no interest in establishing any precise cause: Psychosis or dementia, delusions or overall cognitive decline are all the same under Panetti, so long as they produce the requisite lack of comprehension.” Ultimately, the Court returned the case to the state court for renewed consideration of Madison’s competency, instructing:

In that proceeding, two matters disputed below should now be clear. First, under Ford and Panetti, the Eighth Amendment may permit executing Madison even if he cannot remember committing his crime. Second, under those same decisions, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing Madison even though he suffers from dementia, rather than delusions. 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. Panetti, 551 U. S. at 958.

There was dissenting opinion in this case.