U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Inmate Can't Remember Crime, but Can Be Executed

It was the end of a long road for Vernon Madison.

Convicted of murdering a police officer more than 30 years ago, Madison had avoided his death sentence year after year. He was tried three times and appealed more, including a reversal this year when an appeals court said he was incompetent to be executed because he couldn't remember his crime.

But the U.S. Supreme Court drew the final curtain on Madison's journey through the courts, saying "nothwithstanding his memory loss -- he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed."

Vascular Dementia

Madison was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1985, then again in 1990 and finally in 1994. Each time the convictions were appealed, resulting in the multiple trials and convictions.

In his last federal appeal, Madison's lawyers and expert witnesses said he had suffered a series of strokes that caused him memory loss. A neuropsychologist said he had vascular dementia and didn't remember killing anybody.

It made no sense to execute the man because he could not recall his crime enough to accept responsibility for it, they argued. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Court agreed.

But the U.S. Supreme Court said there is a difference between those who cannot recall crimes and those who cannot "rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment." Madison understood the concepts, the High Court said in Dunn v. Madison.

Cruelty of Death Penalty

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, often identified as the more liberal end of the High Court, agreed. Breyer wrote separately, however, to say that the death penalty may be unconstitutional.

He said Madison had lived with the sentence for 32 years, which "can deepen the cruelty of the death penalty while at the same time undermining its penological rationale." He reiterated his argument from a separate case that challenged lethal injections to say that the death penalty itself should be reviewed.

Related Resources: