The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new state court hearing to determine whether an Alabama death row inmate battling dementia is incompetent to be executed.
The justices ruled 5-3 in favor of inmate Vernon Madison, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. While awaiting execution, Madison suffered a series of strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. The justices have previously said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment means that people who are insane, delusional or psychotic cannot be executed.
In 2016 Madison petitioned for a stay of execution on the ground that he was mentally incompetent, as he failed to remember committing the crime for which he was sentenced to die. The state responded that even if Madison could not remember the crime, he has a rational understanding of the reasons for his execution.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court confirmed that the Eighth Amendment “may permit executing Madison even if he cannot remember the crime,” and that the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing Madison even though he suffers from dementia, rather than delusions. Ultimately, “the sole question on which Madison’s competency depends is whether he can reach a ‘rational understanding’ of why the State wants to execute him.”
Justice Elena Kagan delivered the majority opinion. Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Brett Kavanaugh was not yet on the court when arguments took place in early October.