Madison v. Alabama court case

The Supreme Court receives about 7,000 petitions every year, but the justices choose about 90 percent.
Photo provided by

The Supreme Court receives about 7,000 petitions every year, but the justices choose about 90 percent. Photo provided by

Andres Hernandez

Is it right to execute someone who is mentally unable to understand the reasoning for his or her execution? How about if they can understand it, but simply can’t remember the crime they committed?

On Apr. 18, 1985, Vernon Madison shot and killed Officer Julius Schulte. After being tried, Madison was convicted of capital murder in an Alabama court and sentenced to death three times. The first two convictions were overturned on appeal and on his final conviction the judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and issued the death sentence.

Madison has been awaiting death row for over 30 years now and was originally scheduled for execution in May 2016. During this time (since 1985) Madison has suffered through a series of strokes, which has left him with significant brain damage including dementia. Due to this, Madison filed another appeal claiming that he can no longer remember the crime he committed or even that he was on death row.

A court-ordered psychologist said that Madison had significant loss of body and cognitive function. “I think that he should still be executed because he was found guilty and he committed this crime, so why not treat him like everybody else who had committed crimes similar to this,” said Junior Sarah Hennessy (Div. 047)

The Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel and unusual punishments”. The question is a tricky one, it heavily depends on what we can consider “cruel and unusual punishments”. Nowadays we would consider these forms of punishment as cruel and usual, but would Madison’s execution, despite the fact that he suffers from dementia, be considered cruel and usual in today’s standards?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986) the Supreme Court found Alvin Bernard Ford to be insane and therefore shall not be sentenced to death. Ford was fully aware, however, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia– a mental disorder known to cause delusions and hallucinations. These symptoms are not comparable to the memory loss that Madison is experiencing as Madison is still able to understand the reasoning for his sentence.

On Feb. 27, Justice Elena Kagan delivered the 5-3 opinion of the court. The court vacated and remanded the decision of the Alabama 13th Circuit Court, holding that “the Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime, but it may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions,” according to SCOTUSblog.*

“I believe the Supreme Court made the correct decision, given the situation and the past precedents, if Madison cannot understand the reasoning for his execution then he should be executed and vice versa, ” said junior Karolina Kraj (Div. 034).

Alabama’s 13th circuit court is now in charge of administering a psychological evaluation to see if Madison’s dementia has caused severe mental incompetence to the point that he is not able to understand the reasoning behind his execution.