The State of Alabama cannot execute Vernon Madison because he does not adequately understand why he is facing execution or remember the act for which he is being punished, according to an opinion today from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Mr. Madison is a 66-year-old man on Alabama's death row for the murder of a police officer over three decades ago. As a result of multiple strokes in recent years and other serious medical conditions, Mr. Madison suffers from vascular dementia characterized by retrograde amnesia, which has compromised his ability to remember his capital offense. He speaks in a slurred manner, is legally blind, and is in physical decline as a consequence of damage to his brain.
His first two trials were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. At the first trial prosecutors illegally removed African Americans from the jury because of their race, and at the second trial the prosecutor presented illegal evidence. In 1994, following a third trial, Mr. Madison was convicted by a Mobile County jury that determined he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Mobile County Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae overrode the jury's verdict and sentenced Mr. Madison to death.
United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited Judge McRae in a dissenting opinion criticizing judicial override  in Alabama, observing that he "campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment" and boasting about specific cases in which he had imposed the death penalty. The dissent concluded that the only empirically supported reason why Alabama judges alone continue to override jury verdicts is one that "casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures."
Florida and Delaware previously allowed judge override, but last year the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty statute, holding in Hurst v. Florida  that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence. In response, the Florida legislature abolished judicial override , and the Delaware Supreme Court struck down  that state's death penalty statute. That leaves Alabama as an outlier, the only state in the country where an elected trial judge can disregard a jury verdict for life and impose the death penalty.
Last year, the State of Alabama sought to execute Mr. Madison despite the fact the jury voted for life and despite his serious mental condition. EJI attorneys presented in court the testimony of experts and medical records that documented Mr. Madison's mental incompetence, and argued that the Constitution bars his execution because he does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution. On the day Mr. Madison was scheduled to be executed, the Eleventh Circuit stayed  the execution so that it could properly consider the claim that his execution would violate the Constitution.
In an opinion released today, the court agreed. It held: "Due to his dementia related memory impairments, Mr. Madison lacks a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his execution," and is therefore incompetent to be executed.