Published on: Thursday, February 28, 2019

On Wednesday the United States Supreme Court vacated the judgment of an Alabama trial court that had rejected death-row-prisoner Vernon Madison’s claim that he was incompetent to be executed.  See Madison v. Alabama, 17-7505 (Feb. 27, 2019). Justice Kagan wrote the 5-3 opinion. Justice Alito dissented, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch.  Justice Kavanaugh took no part in the decision.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a prisoner “whose mental illness prevents him from ‘rational[ly] understanding’ why the State seeks to impose that punishment.”  Slip Op. at 1 (quoting Panetti v. Quaterman, 551 U.S. 939, 959 (2007)); see also Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986). 

Vernon Madison has been on Alabama’s death row for nearly three decades.  His mental condition in recent years has “sharply declined,” including a series of major strokes in 2015 and 2016. As a result, Mr. Madison was diagnosed with “vascular dementia, with attendant disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss,” and claimed he can no longer recall committing the crime for which he is awaiting execution.  In 2016, Mr. Madison petitioned a state trial court to stay his execution based on the ground that he was not competent to be executed. The state trial court found Mr. Madison competent to be executed, in part, based on its conclusion that Mr. Madison was not “delusional.”  rejected his claim, in part, based on its conclusion that Mr. Madison was not delusional.  Thereafter, Mr. Madison’s petition for federal habeas relief was denied in the district court, but the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the state court had unreasonably rejected Mr. Madison’s competency to be executed claim. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit for failing to give the state court’s competency determination sufficient deference under AEDPA’s demanding and deferential standard—but the Court carefully expressed no view about Mr. Madison’s competency outside the AEDPA context. 

After Alabama set a new execution date in 2018, Mr. Madison petitioned the state trial court again for a stay on the ground that he was not competent to be executed, including (1) that his condition had further deteriorated and (2) that Dr. Kirkland, the state’s expert, had his license to practice psychology suspended.  The state trial court found that Mr. Madison was competent to be executed. The Supreme Court then granted Mr. Madison’s petition for writ of certiorari directly from the state court’s order denying his competency to be executed claim. Because the Madison’s case came to the Court on direct review of the state trial court’s decision, rather than in habeas, AEDPA’s deferential standard no longer applies.  The Court framed the two issues raised by Mr. Madison’s case as follows:

Two issues relating to Panetti’s application are before us. Recall that our decision there held the Eighth Amendment to forbid executing a prisoner whose mental illness makes him unable to “reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution.” The first question presented is whether Panetti prohibits executing Madison merely because he cannot remember committing his crime. The second question raised is whether Panetti permits executing Madison merely because he suffers from dementia, rather than psychotic delusions. In prior stages of this case, as we have described, the parties disagreed about those matters. But at this Court, Madison accepted Alabama’s position on the first issue and Alabama accepted Madison’s on the second. And rightly so. As the parties now recognize, the standard set out in Panetti supplies the answers to both questions. First, 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. Second, a person suffering from dementia may be unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence; if so, the Eighth Amendment does not allow his execution. What matters is whether a person has the “rational understanding” Panetti requires—not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.

(internal citations and footnotes omitted).  After establishing the analytical framework for evaluating Mr. Madison’s competency to be executed claim, the Court reviewed the state court proceedings and concluded it was at least unsure whether the state court relied on an incorrect view of the law, i.e., that only delusions, and not dementia, could preclude execution.  Thus, the Court vacated the State trial court’s judgment and remanded fur further proceedings.

Merits breifing is available at the Supreme Court's website here.  The Training Division provides resources to federal capital trial and appellate counsel, and federal capital habeas counsel through the Capital Defense Network.