The United States Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s order staying the execution of Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison.
The State of Alabama had scheduled the execution of 65-year-old Vernon Madison by lethal injection on May 12th, even though his jury determined that life without parole was the appropriate punishment for him, and even though strokes and dementia have left him unable to remember the crime or rationally understand why the State seeks to execute him. Mr. Madison now speaks in a slurred manner, is legally blind, and can no longer walk independently as a consequence of damage to his brain.
This morning, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals postponed the execution. EJI lawyers had asked the court to stay Mr. Madison’s execution because it is unconstitutional to execute an individual who is mentally incompetent. The Eleventh Circuit ordered a stay so that it could properly consider the claim that Mr. Madison’s execution would violate the Constitution.
The State of Alabama asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Eleventh Circuit’s order, but the Court instead upheld the lower court’s order. Vernon Madison was arrested in 1985 and charged with capital murder in the death of a Mobile police officer. His first two trials were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found that prosecutors illegally removed African Americans from the jury because of their race at the first trial, 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.
Judge McRae has overridden six jury verdicts of life without parole – more than any other judge in Alabama. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited Judge McRae in her dissent 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.”
Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme has exactly the same defect that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing statute because it allowed judges, rather than juries, to make the findings necessary to impose the death penalty.
Last week, the Supreme Court granted review in a case challenging Alabama’s death penalty scheme, vacated the death sentence, and remanded for reconsideration in light of Hurst. In light of this recent development, EJI lawyers have argued that Mr. Madison should be able to challenge Alabama’s death penalty scheme and the override in his case.