The Supreme Court Thursday halted the execution of an Alabama inmate convicted for the 1985 murder of a police officer.
The inmate argues his mental incapacitation shields him from execution, and that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death by a judge instead of a jury.
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.
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The high court previously authorized his execution in October 2017. The Court explained that Madison could not appeal his death penalty sentence, which was given by a state court, in the federal judicial system.
Now on his second appeal, Madison argues his death sentence is unconstitutional because it was not given by a jury. Though the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison during the sentencing phase of his trial, Judge Ferrill McRae overrode their decision and sentencing him to death. According to Madison’s petition, McRae has overturned six life verdicts in capital cases during his career on the bench, more than any judge in Alabama.
“[N]o state currently allows a judge to override a jury’s capital sentencing verdict. This constitutes not merely ‘national consensus,’ but unanimous agreement that a sentence of death imposed by a judge contrary to a jury’s life verdict does not comport with our evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment,” Madison’s petition reads.
The Supreme Court has generally been suspicious of judge-imposed executions. An 8-1 Court found Florida’s death penalty regime unconstitutional in a 2016 case because it gave judges significant discretion in key elements of capital sentencing. Florida’s system is substantially similar to Alabama’s.
The second appeal also notes that the state-appointed psychologist who concluded that Madison is fit for execution has since been suspended because of narcotics addiction.
Thursday’s stay will remain in effect until the Court reaches a decision about Madison’s appeal.
Prosecutors had to try Madison three times to secure a conviction. His first two convictions were overturned due to racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct.
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