WASHINGTON — Alabama cannot execute Vernon Madison if his dementia prevents him from rationally understanding why he is to be put to death, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined his more liberal colleagues Wednesday in the 5–3 decision, clarifying how the Constitution limits the execution of people with mental illness.
The court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of any mentally ill person who “cannot understand the societal judgment underlying his sentence” — regardless of the underlying cause. In Madison’s case, his lawyers argued that the Alabama court had only considered whether delusions, and not his dementia, were sufficient to prevent his execution.
“The Eighth Amendment doesn’t care about the particular diagnosis — schizophrenia, dementia, or something else entirely,” Justice Elena Kagan announced for the court from the bench. “If a person suffering from any mental disorder — dementia included — is unable to rationally understand why the state wants to execute him, then the Eighth Amendment doesn’t allow the execution.”
The court stopped short of ruling that Alabama cannot execute Madison, however, instead sending the case back to the Alabama court for further consideration of Madison’s competency to be executed in light of Wednesday’s ruling.
The court ruled against the claim that first brought Madison’s case before the justices. His lawyers initially had argued that Madison’s execution should be prohibited because he no longer remembered committing the crime — his 1985 killing of a police officer.
The court held that the lack of a memory about the crime alone is not sufficient to bar execution because, as Kagan wrote for the court, “a person lacking such a memory may still be able to form a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence.”
Kagan was joined by Roberts, as well as justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, in her decision for the court.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, dissented, arguing that the court’s decision “makes a mockery of [court] rules,” noting that Madison’s initial argument — and the argument under which the court granted review in his case — solely focused on that question of whether a person who no longer remembers their crime can be executed.
When Madison’s lawyers “abandoned” that argument to focus instead on the issue of the lower court’s treatment of Madison's dementia, Alito wrote, Madison’s case before the justices should have been dismissed.
Alito continued that, regardless of that, he would not side with the court’s majority because, in his view, “there is little reason to think” the Alabama court actually made “an erroneous distinction between dementia and other mental conditions.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh had not yet been confirmed as a justice when the arguments were held in the case and did not participate in Wednesday’s decision.
The importance of Roberts' vote in death penalty cases — and more broadly — has been on full display this month, with Roberts casting the key vote to allow another execution in Alabama to proceed on Feb. 7 over a strong dissent from Kagan that was joined by the three other more liberal justices. Less than two weeks later, however, Roberts joined the more liberal justices — again over the objection of Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch — in sending a Texas death-penalty case back to the Texas courts because "it is easy to see," Roberts wrote, that the state court there had "misapplied" the standards for assessing intellectual disability in death-penalty cases.