Supreme Court Extends Eighth Amendment Protections to People with Dementia

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*Photo credit Equal Justice Initiative*

February 27, 2019- The United States Supreme Court today ruled in favor of EJI client Vernon Madison, a 68-year-old man suffering from severe vascular dementia following multiple life-threatening strokes. The Court held that Mr. Madison, who is legally blind, incontinent, cannot walk without a walker, speaks with slurred speech, and has no memory of the crime or the circumstances that brought him to death row, is entitled to an assessment that recognizes that dementia and other mental conditions are covered by the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We are thrilled that today the Court recognized that people with dementia like Vernon Madison, who cannot consistently orient to time and place, are protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment,” said EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, who argued Mr. Madison’s case. “Prisoners who become incompetent due to dementia and severe mental illness are vulnerable and should be shielded from abusive and cruel treatment. The Court’s opinion affirming the basic principle of a humane system of justice is a significant victory.”

In a 5-3 decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court explained that the Eighth Amendment bars executing a person whose mental disorder makes him unable to reach a rational understanding of the reason for his execution.

The critical question is whether a “prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.” Or similarly put, the issue is whether a “prisoner’s concept of reality” is “so impair[ed]” that he cannot grasp the execution’s “meaning and purpose” or the “link between [his] crime and its punishment.”

Contrary to the State of Alabama’s argument in state court that this precedent does not apply to Mr. Madison because he is suffering from dementia rather than psychotic delusions, the Court held that “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.”

The Court reasoned that the standard “focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect: an inability to rationally understand why the State is seeking execution.” The standard does not require “establishing any precise cause: Psychosis or dementia, delusions or overall cognitive decline are all the same under Panetti, so long as they produce the requisite lack of comprehension.”

The Court returned the case to the state court for renewed consideration of whether Mr. Madison is competent under the Eighth Amendment. It barred the state court from relying on arguments or evidence tainted by legal error, including portions of the experts’ reports and testimony that “expressly reflect[] an incorrect view of the relevance of delusions or memory” as well as other evidence that “might have implicitly rested on those same misjudgments.”

Case History

Vernon Madison has long suffered from mental illness but when he became extremely confused and disoriented, told his lawyers he was going to move to Florida, and could no longer remember his crime, concerns about his competency were raised. Experts agree that Mr. Madison’s vascular dementia is likely the result of several strokes he experienced in 2015 after he had been held in solitary confinement on Alabama’s death row for 30 years.

Mr. Madison was convicted of the shooting death of a Mobile police officer in 1985. His first trial was overturned after reviewing courts found that the prosecutor had engaged in intentional racial discrimination by excluding African American people from jury service. Mr. Madison, who is African American, was tried a second time, convicted, and sentenced to death. Courts again found that prosecutors had engaged in misconduct and illegally convicted him.

After a third trial, Mr. Madison was convicted but jurors sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. An elected trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict of life and imposed a sentence of death. After recent Supreme Court rulings, the Alabama legislature barred the practice of overturning jury life verdicts in 2017 but did not apply the new law retroactively.

After Mr. Madison was scheduled for execution in 2016, a federal appeals court found that he was incompetent to be executed because he had no rational understanding of the crime for which he was convicted. The Eleventh Circuit held that executing a person currently suffering from dementia would be cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in 2017 and declared that a federal court in a habeas proceeding is not authorized to make a decision about the unresolved question about whether dementia qualifies as a basis for barring an execution under the Eighth Amendment.

It was recently discovered that the expert who concluded that Mr. Madison was competent to be executed was illegally abusing narcotics at the time he conducted his evaluation of Mr. Madison. He was arrested on felony drug charges days after the competency hearing and has been disqualified from medical practice.

EJI argued that the unreliability of the competency assessment by the now-discredited physician and Mr. Madison’s uncontradicted dementia and impaired mental health establish a basis for stopping his execution. In January 2018, the Supreme Court granted EJI’s motion for a stay of execution and agreed to consider Mr. Madison’s petition for review.

On October 2, 2018, EJI director Bryan Stevenson argued the case before the Court, which now squarely faces the question of whether dementia qualifies as a basis for finding a person is not competent to be executed. He concluded his argument by reminding the justices: “The 8th Amendment isn’t just a window. It’s a mirror. And what the Court has said is that our norms—our values—are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people. … Dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable, in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system and examines the history of racial injustice in America.

All rights reserved, Gumptown Magazine. Copyright 2019. 

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