Politics

This Inmate Can’t Remember His Crime. The Supreme Court Authorized His Execution.

Alabama Department of Corrections.

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent

The Supreme Court authorized the execution of an infirm Alabama inmate Monday, concluding that the convict’s medical incapacitation should not hinder his execution.

There were no noted dissents, though Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor filed concurring opinions expressing their views on related death penalty issues.

Vernon Madison, 66, was convicted for the April 1985 murder of Mobile police officer Julius Schulte. In the intervening years he has suffered several strokes, which have limited his mobility and capacity to communicate. Psychologists supervising his treatment say he also suffers from memory impairments including dementia. Among other things, Madison remembers almost nothing of the murder and the subsequent criminal trial.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed his execution in March, concluding that his medical incompetence insulated him from capital punishment. The appeals court relied on a 2007 Supreme Court case which concluded that inmates must have a “rational understanding” of the government’s reason for executing them.

But the justices reversed that decision Monday, citing a 1996 law called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The law allows state death penalty convicts to seek relief in federal courts only where the state court unreasonably applies clearly established federal law or where the conviction is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The high court said neither exception could be applied in Madison’s case.

The Court further explained that Madison fundamentally understands why he is being executed, indicating that he possesses the “rational understanding” requisite for the death penalty.

“[H]e recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed,” the unsigned opinion reads.

Writing in a separate concurring opinion, Ginsburg said that the Court should consider whether a death penalty inmate with memory loss can be executed in an “appropriately presented” case, but agreed with the Court’s decision in Madison’s case. Breyer and Sotomayor joined her opinion.

Breyer, the leading anti-capital punishment voice on the Supreme Court, also filed a concurrence, arguing that Madison’s case reveals deep problems in the administration of the death penalty, particularly because capital appeals often last for decades. Breyer has long argued these lengthy disposition periods constitute the sort of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

He also suggested that the AEDPA and competency issues were something of a red herring.

“Rather than develop a constitutional jurisprudence that focuses upon the special circumstances of the aged, however, I believe it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem—the constitutionality of the death penalty itself,” he wrote.

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