George Walker Bush, a former U.S. president, and governor of Texas, once spoke, “I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don’t think that’s right. I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives.” The death penalty, or capital punishment, refers to the execution of a criminal convicted of a capital offense. With many criminals awaiting execution on death row, the death penalty has been a debated topic since its reinstitution in 1976. But, even more controversy arises whether a state may execute prisoners who are mentally ill.
In a perfect society, everyone with a mental illness is properly treated, but society is not perfect and nearly 356,000 inmates with mental illness were in jails and state prisons in 2014. This is 10 times more than the 35,000 mentally ill individuals that remained in state hospitals. This paper will analyze the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment regarding state execution of prisoners whose medical conditions leave them incompetent, while exploring the pending United States Supreme Court case: Madison v. Alabama.
In April 1985, Vernon Madison visited the home of his ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Green, in Mobile, Alabama, to collect personal items. At the same time, Officer Julius Schulte arrived to investigate a report of a missing person. Fortunately, Green’s daughter came home before Officer Schulte arrived, but at the request of neighbors, Schulte stayed at the residence until Madison left. In the meantime, Madison shot Schulte twice in the head, killing him, and shot Green twice in the back, injuring her. The trial court convicted Madison of murder and sentenced him to death; however, the state appeals court reversed the decision because the prosecutors excluded black jury members. After a second trial, Madison was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to capital punishment; however, the appeals court again reversed his conviction due to prosecutor introduction of inadmissible evidence. After a third trial, Madison was convicted and sentenced to death. Madison responded with a series of appeals on other grounds, each denied.
While in prison, Madison suffered multiple strokes that left him impaired. In May 2015 and January 2016, Madison’s strokes left him “very confused” and with memory loss that “negatively impacted his cognitive and body functioning.” He now suffers from encephalomalacia (a loss of brain tissue), dementia and cognitive impairment that decrease his ability to “rationally understand his circumstances.” As a result, Madison cannot remember murdering and does not understand his execution. The Supreme Court of Alabama set an execution date, but Madison filed a petition with the state court claiming he was incompetent to be executed. The state court ruled Madison competent to be executed.
Under Alabama state law, Madison could not appeal this finding. Instead, he sought habeas corpus relief in federal court. The federal district court denied Madison’s request, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed. In November 2017, the Supreme Court reversed Dunn v Madison, finding the state court’s determinations of law were not “so lacking in justification” as to give rise to error “beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement”; Madison’s claim to federal habeas relief failed. Establishing the grounds for Madison v Alabama, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added that “[t]he issue whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense is a substantial question not yet addressed by the Court.” Madison appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the case is awaiting decision.
Madison v Alabama raises many unanswered questions: Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit a state from executing a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of committing the capital offense? And does the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment prevent a state from implementing the death penalty to prisoners who exhibit severe cognitive dysfunction such that he cannot remember his crime or understand the circumstances of his execution?
Two precedent cases that have answered similar questions are Ford v Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, and Panetti v Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930. In Ford v Wainwright, a Florida court sentenced Alvin Bernard Ford to death for murder. Unaware at the time of the murder, trial, and sentencing, Ford suffered mental deficiencies. In a 7 to 2 decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority opinion and found executing the insane “savage and inhumane.” In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote that executing the mentally insane violates the Eighth Amendment. According to Powell, “the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” Similarly, in Panetti v Quarterman, Scott Louis Panetti was convicted of murdering his wife’s parents and ruled the death penalty. Panetti presented awareness of his execution, but lacked an understanding of the justification due to mental illness. In a 5 to 4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Panetti, although, the court did not answer what kind of understanding the Eighth Amendment requires a death row inmate to have.
According to the Eighth Amendment, no “cruel and unusual” punishment is constitutional and people who are “insane” cannot be executed. But what defines “insane”? The U.S. Supreme Court Justices will use the previous cases Ford v Wainwright, Panetti v Quarterman, and the precursor to Madison v Alabama, Dunn v Madison, to establish what constitutes insanity. If Madison has no memory of murdering Officer Schulte, can he be executed or does the Eighth Amendment protect him? Based on the decision in Ford v Wainwright, the Eighth Amendment recognizes America’s “evolving standards of decency”. Moreover, the justices in Madison v Alabama will analyze if society’s evolving standards allow execution of someone with no memory of committing the crime. Madison’s legal team argues Madison is “insane” under the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case, Panetti v Quarterman, because the Eighth Amendment does not allow for his execution. Alabama claim’s Madison is not “insane” because he understands his execution and his failure to remember does not matter. The U.S. Supreme Court is in the process of hearing Madison v Alabama to answer the 30 year long question posed by Dunn v Madison: does the Eighth Amendment require a person to have a memory of the actions he took? The Court will evaluate if Madison understands the connection between his acts and his sentence. They will also consider what the Founders expected “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Eighth amendment to encompass.
So why does Madison’s case not apply to Ford v Wainwright and Panetti v Quarterman? Because these U.S. Supreme Court cases have not determined whether Madison’s loss of memory of murdering Officer Schulte prohibits his execution. Criminal punishment is about deterrence and retribution, and the Court’s Justices seek to take the matter of Madison’s life with much precaution. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether these two rationales are still served through capital punishment to someone who cannot remember committing murder.
This question—perhaps the center of the case—will fall on ideological lines and the desire to empathize with Madison versus Green’s family. It is important to the functioning of our society to do everything possible to keep people safe and hold criminal actions accountable, and the sentence of the death penalty is a constitutional way to do so, although many exceptions are involved. The U.S. Supreme Court has no yet answered whether a person with memory loss and mental illness can be executed, but the Justices will be using the Eighth Amendment and several precedent cases to justify their decision.
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