February 28, 2019
Vernon Madison has been on Alabama’s death row for over 30 years for killing a police officer. In that time, he has suffered several strokes, which have left him with dementia (among other things). As a result, his lawyer told the U.S. Supreme Court at oral argument in October, Madison’s memory is poor, and he is “bewildered and confused” most of the time.
Although the constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” bars states from executing someone who is incompetent because he is insane or delusional, an Alabama state court gave Madison’s execution the green light, reasoning that the prohibition does not apply when a defendant is incompetent for other reasons, such as dementia.
Yesterday, in a 5-3 ruling (Justice Kavanaugh was not involved in the decision), the Supreme Court ordered the Alabama court to reconsider its ruling, holding that an inmate cannot be executed if he doesn’t understand the reason for his execution. The court’s focus, the decision continued, should be on the inmate’s comprehension of the reasons for his death sentence, not his diagnosis.
Perhaps the news of most lasting significance was that Chief Justice Roberts threw his lot in with the majority. Whether that is a sign of a more centrist Chief Justice or whether this is simply a one-off is a question that only time can answer.