US high court case: Can you execute a man who can’t remember his crime?

WASHINGTON -- Vernon Madison killed an Alabama police officer in 1985, and was convicted and sentenced to death nine years later.

But after two debilitating strokes while in prison, his lawyers say he can’t remember the crime he committed or why he is to be executed.

The US Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that will likely have much broader meaning than for just one person: it could apply to the large population of aging inmates in American prisons facing execution.

The eight judges of the high court who heard Tuesday’s arguments must weigh whether capital punishment for the 68 year old Madison, already delayed several times, is ethical and legal, based on the US Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Critical could be who fills the ninth seat: conservative nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s approval has been stalled as he faces sexual abuse allegations.

Inmate with dementia

Madison shot a policeman in the head twice when the officer tried to intervene in a domestic dispute in 1985 in the city of Mobile. But it took nine years to gain a final verdict, after the initial verdicts in his first two trials were overturned over procedural issues.

In 2015 and 2016, Madison suffered two severe strokes. Today he is almost blind, cannot walk without assistance, and suffers from incontinence.

His memory is so impaired that he can no longer recite the alphabet and frequently requests visits from his mother, who has been dead for years.

He does not remember his crime or the trials he underwent that placed him on death row.

If someone is fragile and confused, under the Constitution’s 8th amendment “it is simply not humane to execute him,” Madison’s attorney Bryan Stevenson told the high court Tuesday.

Growing problem

“Not remembering your crime is not enough,” argued Alabama deputy attorney general Thomas Govan.

“He is able to understand the nature of the criminal proceeding,” said Govan.

If the state stops executing people who don’t remember their crimes, he added, “no inmate would ever admit committing a crime.”

The case raises a legal issue the Supreme Court has yet to rule upon.