Convicted Mobile cop killer Vernon Madison received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today, nearly 13 months after the court issued an 11th hour stay of execution as the state was minutes from carrying out the death penalty. Madison was convicted of the 1985 capital murder of Mobile Police Officer Julius Schulte during an investigation into a domestic dispute.
In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court agreed in a 5-3 decision that Madison is protected under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and usual punishment. Attorneys for Madison have argued he is incapacitated by dementia and no longer remembers the crime he committed, nor understands the sentence imposed by the state.
“The Eighth Amendment, this Court has held, prohibits the execution of a prisoner whose mental illness prevents him from ‘rational[ly] understanding’ why the State seeks to impose that punishment,” Kagan wrote. “In this case, Vernon Madison argued that his memory loss and dementia entitled him to a stay of execution, but an Alabama court denied the relief. We now address two questions relating to the Eighth Amendment’s bar, disputed below but not in this Court.
“First, does the Eighth Amendment forbid execution whenever a prisoner shows that a mental disorder has left him without any memory of committing his crime? We (and, now, the parties) think not, because a person lacking such a memory may still be able to form a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence.Second, does the Eighth Amendment apply similarly to a prisoner suffering from dementia as to one experiencing psychotic delusions? We (and, now, the parties) think so, because either condition may —or, then again, may not— impede the requisite comprehension of his punishment.”
Joining Kagan in the decision were Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion joined by Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, while Brett Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration of the case.
While the decision effectively upholds Madison’s stay of execution, Kagan ordered a review by the state.
“The only issue left, on which the parties still disagree, is what those rulings mean for Madison’s own execution. We direct that issue to the state court for further consideration in light of this opinion.”
The Equal Justice Initiative, which worked on behalf of Madison along with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, noted the order effectively returns the case to the state court “for renewed consideration of whether Mr. Madison can reach a ‘rational understanding’ of why the State wants to execute him.”
Further, “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.”
Noting it hasn’t been the first time Madison’s execution has been stayed, Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office expressed confidence the sentence will eventually be carried out.
“Vernon Madison was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Mobile police officer Cpl. Julius Schulte, and he is competent to be executed for this heinous crime despite his claims that he cannot remember it,” Marshall said in a statement. “The U.S. Supreme Court has now held twice that the lack of memory is not alone sufficient to bar execution. We expect that when the lower court revisits the matter on remand from the Supreme Court, it will once again find that Madison is competent to finally face the justice that he has so far evaded for nearly 34 years.”
Meanwhile, Alito wrote the majority decision “makes a mockery of our rules.” Alito claims Madison’s attorneys changed course from the question in their petition during oral arguments, essentially “tricking” the court into hearing a case that would have otherwise been dismissed.
“After persuading the Court to grant review of this question, counsel abruptly changed course,” Alito wrote. “Perhaps because he concluded (correctly) that petitioner was unlikely to prevail on the question raised in the petition, he conceded that the argument advanced in his petition was wrong, and he switched to an entirely different argument, namely, that the state court had rejected petitioner’s claim that he is incompetent to be executed because the court erroneously thought that dementia, as opposed to other mental conditions, cannot provide a basis for such a claim.
“This was not a question that the Court agreed to hear; indeed, there is no mention whatsoever of this argument in the petition — not even a hint. Nor is this question fairly included within those on which the Court granted review. On the contrary, it is an entirely discrete and independent question.”
In a tweet, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund called the decision a “monumental win” for the team, adding they will “continue to support” the case going forward.
The EJI issued its own statement this morning ensuring “Madison is entitled to an assessment that recognizes dementia and other mental conditions as covered by 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 orient to time and place, are protected from execution and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment,” EJI attorney Bryan Stevenson said. “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.”
This article has been updated to provide statements from legal counsel and clarify the headline.
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here