Alabama death row prisoner Vernon Madison passed away this weekend at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, after years of suffering from dementia and serious mental problems following multiple strokes. He was 69 years old.
Mr. Madison’s case brought national attention to the plight of aging prisoners with dementia when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor that the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of prisoners rendered incompetent because of dementia.
Mr. Madison experienced several strokes in 2015 after he had been held in solitary confinement on Alabama’s death row for 30 years. He developed vascular dementia as a result, which left him legally blind, incontinent, unable to walk without a walker, with slurred speech, and with no memory of the crime or the circumstances that brought him to death row.
Mr. Madison was convicted of the shooting death of a Mobile police officer in 1985. He had long suffered from mental illness, but when he became extremely confused and disoriented, told his lawyers he was going to move to Florida, and could no longer remember his crime, concerns about his competency were raised.
After Mr. Madison was scheduled for execution in 2016, a federal appeals court found that he was incompetent to be executed because he had no rational understanding of the crime for which he was convicted. The Eleventh Circuit held that executing a person currently suffering from dementia would be cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in 2017.
EJI argued that Mr. Madison’s dementia and impaired mental health established a basis for stopping his execution. In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted EJI’s motion for a stay of execution and agreed to consider Mr. Madison’s petition for review.
On October 2, 2018, EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson argued before the Court that the Eighth Amendment barred Mr. Madison’s execution because his dementia rendered him “frail, bewildered, vulnerable, in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency.”
On February 27, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Madison, extending Eighth Amendment protections to people with dementia and holding that Mr. Madison was entitled to an assessment that recognizes dementia and other mental conditions as covered by the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. Madison’s time on death row was lengthy because, in his first trial, prosecutors illegally excluded Black people from serving on the jury. A second trial was also found to be illegal after the court found that prosecutors had engaged in misconduct.
After a third trial in 1994, Mr. Madison was convicted but jurors sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. An elected trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict of life and imposed a sentence of death. After recent Supreme Court rulings, the Alabama legislature barred the practice of overturning jury life verdicts in 2017 but did not apply the new law retroactively.