Madison v. Alabama

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Madison v. Alabama
Argued October 2, 2018
Decided February 27, 2019
Full case nameVernon Madison, Petitioner v. Alabama
Docket no.17-7505
Citations586 U.S. ___ (more)
139 S. Ct. 718; 203 L. Ed. 2d 103
Case history
PriorPetition denied, sub nom. Madison v. Commissioner, Ala. Dept. of Corrections; rev'd in part, remanded, 677 F.3d 1333 (11th Cir. 2012); cert. denied, sub nom. Thomas v. Madison, 568 U.S. 1019 (2012); petition denied, sub nom. Madison v. Commissioner, Ala. Dept. of Corrections; aff'd, 761 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 2014); cert. denied, sub nom. Madison v. Thomas, 135 S. St. 1562 (2015); rehearing denied, 135 S. Ct. 2346 (2015); petition denied, S.D. Ala., May 10, 2016; rev'd, 851 F.3d 1173 (11th Cir. 2017); reversed sub. nom., Dunn v. Madison, 138 S. Ct. 9 (2017); remanded, 879 F.3d 1298 (11th Cir. 2018); cert. granted, 138 S. Ct. 1172 (2018).
The Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he or she cannot remember committing his or her crime, but it may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder, rather than psychotic delusions.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Neil Gorsuch · Brett Kavanaugh
Case opinions
MajorityKagan, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor
DissentAlito, joined by Thomas, Gorsuch
Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. VIII

Madison v. Alabama, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), was a United States Supreme Court case regarding the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, barring cruel and unusual punishment. The case deals with whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits executing a person for a crime they do not remember.


Vernon Madison (August 22, 1950 – February 22, 2020)[1] shot police officer Julius Schulte twice in the back of the head in Mobile, Alabama in April 1985. Schulte was mediating a domestic disturbance between Madison and his ex-girlfriend; Madison also shot and injured her. Madison was an inmate at Holman Correctional Facility from September 1985 up until his death on February 22, 2020[2][3][4][5]

Three trials were held, as the convictions from the first two were overturned: the first because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded black people from the jury and the second because they introduced evidence improperly. In the third trial, the jury decided on a sentence of life in prison, but the judge Ferrill McRae[6] overruled them and gave Madison a sentence of death in 1994.[2][4]

The execution was scheduled to occur in May 2016; the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay on the day of the execution, which the Supreme Court upheld 5-3 (at the time, one seat on the nine-member court was empty owing to Justice Antonin Scalia's death a few months prior).[4][7][8]

In Dunn v. Madison, in November 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a 2-1 decision by the 11th Circuit, which had stopped the execution on the basis that Madison "does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution".[9] The Circuit Court was overruling a state court decision that had denied Madison's petition on the basis that Supreme Court precedent only barred execution if he lacked "understanding he is being executed as punishment for a crime".[7][10] The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but ruled that the Circuit Court overstepped its authority under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which set the standard for which federal courts can overturn a lower court's decision.[10]

The execution was scheduled for January 2018; the Supreme Court granted a stay 30 minutes before Madison was scheduled to be executed, with Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissenting.[2][3][4][7]

Madison's health[edit]

Madison had severe strokes in 2015 and 2016, resulting in vascular dementia and inability to remember killing police officer Schulte in 1985.[4][7][11] Prior to his death, he was blind and had suffered a significant mental decline; he only remembered the alphabet up to the letter G and had slurred speech. The strokes caused physical damage as well, leaving him incontinent, unable to walk without a walker, and with slurred speech.[12] However, according to the psychologist appointed by Alabama courts seeking his execution, he understood that he would be executed and the reason for that.[4][7]

On Saturday, February 22, 2020, Vernon Madison died while he was still on death row at Alabama's Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. He was 69 years old. He was never executed. Officials did not cite a cause of death, but they did say that foul play was unlikely. News reports said shortly after his death that results of an autopsy were pending.[13]


In Ford v. Wainwright,[14] the Supreme Court held in 1986 that executing the insane is not allowed due to the Eighth Amendment, and in Panetti v. Quarterman,[15] they held in 2007 that to be sentenced to death, an inmate must understand "the meaning and purpose of" his death sentence.[11][16]


The Supreme Court decided to hear the case in February 2018.[4] Oral arguments were held on October 2, 2018.[5][16] At oral argument, Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan surprised some observers as well as Justices by agreeing with defense counsel Bryan Stevenson that dementia could be a form of incapacitation sufficient to meet the Ford and Panetti standards prohibiting the execution of some incapacitated inmates.[6] Govan argued only that Madison's condition did not meet those tests because he still had the cognitive ability to understand why he was being executed, even if he could not recall the crime.[6] Stevenson argued that Madison was disabled beyond solely memory loss and thus his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.[6]


In a 5-3 opinion, authored by Justice Kagan, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he or she cannot remember committing his or her crime, but it may prohibit executing a prisoner who suffers from dementia or another disorder, rather than psychotic delusions. The Court held that if a prisoner is unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence, the Eighth Amendment forbids his execution.[17]

Justice Alito in dissent, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch, would not have reached this question, stating that Madison presented only the first question (whether a state can execute a prisoner who cannot remember committing his crime) in his petition.

The Court remanded the case for the lower court to determine whether Madison was able to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence.


  1. ^ "Alabama Department of Corrections". Archived from the original on October 24, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Almasy, Steve; Mayra, Cuevas (January 26, 2018). "Supreme Court stays execution of Alabama inmate who lawyers say is not competent". CNN. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Palmer, Evan (February 27, 2018). "Inmate who spent 30 years on death row may be spared execution—as he can't remember carrying out the crime". Newsweek. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Liptak, Adam (March 5, 2018). "Too Old to Be Executed? Supreme Court Considers an Aging Death Row". The New York Times. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  5. ^ a b Epps, Garrett (September 18, 2018). "The Machinery of Death Is Back on the Docket". The Atlantic. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d Bravin, Jess (October 2, 2018). "Supreme Court Grapples With Planned Execution of Convicted Killer With Dementia". WSJ. Retrieved December 3, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Supreme Court to hear case where man can't remember killing". Associated Press. February 26, 2018. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  8. ^ Stein, Kelsey (May 13, 2016). "What's next for Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison after execution was stayed?". Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  9. ^ Madison v. Commissioner, Ala. Dept. of Corrections, 851 F.3d 1173 (11th Cir. 2017); reversed sub. nom., Dunn v. Madison, 138 S. Ct. 9 (2017).
  10. ^ a b Barnes, Robert (November 6, 2017). "Supreme Court won't stop execution of man who can't remember murder". Washington Post. Retrieved September 27, 2018.
  11. ^ a b "Justices consider whether a man with dementia may be put to death". The Economist. October 6, 2018. Retrieved October 6, 2018.
  12. ^ "Vernon Madison, Alabama Death Row Prisoner with Dementia, Has Died". Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). February 24, 2020. Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  13. ^ Hrynkiw, Ivana (February 24, 2020). "Vernon Madison, One of the Longest-Serving Alabama Death Row Inmates, Dies". Advance Local Media LLC. Retrieved March 18, 2020.
  14. ^ Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986).
  15. ^ Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007).
  16. ^ a b Howe, Amy (October 2, 2018). "Argument analysis: A narrow victory possible for death-row inmate with dementia?". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
  17. ^ "Madison v. Alabama". Oyez. Retrieved June 2, 2020.

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