Legal Issues In the News

Capital Punishment and Madison v. Alabama


Jennifer Pahre from the University of Illinois College of Law University of Illinois College of Law

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids certain penalties for crimes, including executing people who are adjudged insane.  In a recent case, Madison v. Alabama, the Supreme Court considered the type of mental impairment necessary to avoid execution.

The American insanity defense initially followed The M’Naghten Rules, which arose from the 1843 murder of Edward Drummond, the private secretary to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.  Daniel M’Naghten was operating under the delusion that the Prime Minister wanted to murder him, and he shot Drummond, who was wearing Sir Robert’s coat.  Drummond died, and M’Naghten was tried for murder.  But the jury acquitted M’Naghten, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity.  The British House of Lords then declared that, to establish the defense of insanity, it must clearly be proved that the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, that they did not know the nature and quality of the act that they were doing; or if they did know what they were doing, they did not know that it was wrong.

This rule was adopted in the United States. In Ford v. Wainwright, the Court found that the mentally insane could not be executed. And in Panetti v. Quartermanthe Supreme Court ruled that convicted murderers have the right to litigate their competency to be executed.

But what if someone committed murder, was convicted and sentenced to be executed, and then developed cognitive problems such that they could not recall their crime?  Is the failure to remember sufficient to prevent execution?  That is the question in Madison v. Alabama.

The case arose from a domestic disturbance call. Officer Julius Schulte responded to the call, driving to the home that Vernon Madison shared with his former girlfriend. While the officer was waiting for Madison to pack up and leave, he shot Officer Schulte.  Madison was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. But in the years following his conviction, Madison’s health declined.  He suffered a series of strokes, and was diagnosed with dementia, disorientation, and severe memory loss.  Madison credibly claimed that he could no longer recall the crime for which he was sentenced to die.

The State of Alabama determined to proceed with Madison’s execution anyway.  It acknowledged that the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment barred the execution of the insane or delusional, but argued that it could nonetheless terminate the life of someone who was mentally incompetent for other reasons, including dementia.

The United States Supreme Court, however, ordered Alabama to reconsider.   The Court affirmed that an inmate cannot be executed if he does not understand why the state is trying to end his life.  The nature of the inmate’s diagnosis is immaterial; it does not matter whether the lack of understanding results from delusion or dementia.  What does matter is whether the person understands why they must die.  So, Madison’s case has been sent back for further proceedings.  If the State of Alabama can prove that Madison understands why he is to be executed, it can end his life.  If not, then Madison must be allowed to live.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once said: “The Constitution doesn't belong to a bunch of judges and lawyers. It belongs to you.” And, apparently, the Constitution also belongs to Vernon Madison, a convicted murderer.