Short-handed High Court opens session with death penalty case

Amid the contentious battle in Congress to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the U.S. Supreme Court opened its session Monday, confronted with what could be a landmark death penalty case.

During oral arguments on Tuesday, the eight justices heard the case of Madison v. Alabama, involving Vernon Madison, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 slaying of a Mobile, Ala., police officer, Julius Schulte, during a domestic dispute.

For 33 years, the case has endured and survived three trials, numerous appeals and two last-minute stays of execution, one in 2016, orchestrated on Madison’s behalf by the Equal Justice Initiative.

In January, the Supreme Court intervened on behalf of Madison, halting his scheduled execution at the last minute.  The court ruled against a judge overriding a jury’s recommendation for the life imprisonment of Madison.

The court’s intervention hinged on attorney’s claiming the U.S. Constitution forbids capital punishment carried out on inmates suffering from mental disorder.

At 68 years of age, Madison is one of Alabama’s longest-serving death-row inmates.

The turning point, however, was two strokes suffered by Madison, both of which diminished his memory, and caused dementia and brain damage.

Weighing what could be limitations placed on capital punishment, justices were confronted with a case in which attorneys for Madison argue their client’s declining mental state has left him with virtually no recollection of his crime.

Madison’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, argued Madison persists in a state of bewilderment and confusion, unable to “orient” himself to even date or time.

At issue, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, is not whether Madison lingers in a state of dementia, but rather whether dementia should bar an execution from being carried out.

Citing two key precedents, a 1968 case, Ford v. Wainwright, and a 2007 decision, Panetti v. Quarterman, Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan argued an inmate suffering vascular dementia or mental disease still qualifies for the sentence to be carried out.

Arguing Madison fits both precedents and is in mental condition for execution under state law determining his mental fitness for punishment, Govan told the court Madison understands both his crime and his sentence, despite suffering from dementia.

An ongoing case, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver a decision in June 2019.  One possible outcome is a return to the lower court.


[SCOTUSblog] [Reuters] [Photo courtesy Alabama Today]