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Executing Someone With Dementia Might Violate Constitution, Justices Say: NPR



Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a Mobile, Ala., Police officer.
                
                
                    
                    Alabama Department of Corrections via AP
                    
                

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Alabama Department of Corrections via AP
        
    

Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a Mobile, Ala., Police officer.

Alabama Department of Corrections via AP
            
        

The court may say that the government can execute a prisoner even if he does not remember his crime. But he can not execute the prisoner if he does not understand why he was "singled out" to die, the high court said in his decision 5-3.

The court blocked the execution of 68-year-old Vernon Madison, who suffers from dementia, asking for a lower court To determine if Madison could "rationally understand" why he was being put to death.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, who argued the case for Madison, said he was "thrilled" with the ruling. "Prisoners who become incompetent due to dementia and severe mental illness are vulnerable and should be shielded from abusive and cruel treatment," Stevenson said in a statement.

Madison has spent more than 30 years in solitary confinement in Alabama, awaiting execution. In 1985, he shot and killed a police officer who had responded to a dispute involving Madison and his girlfriend.

Ultimately sentenced to death, Madison has since had multiple strokes, suffers from vascular dementia, and has no memory of the crime, his lawyer says. The high court took the case to determine whether the execution of Madison violates the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Not to mention the crime is not a bar to execution, the court said in its ruling. "A person lacking memory of his crime may still rationally understand why the state seeks to enforce it, if so, the Eighth Amendment brings no bar to his execution," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

"Do you have an Kagan wrote, "You can still be able to reach a rational-indeed, sophisticated-understanding of that conflict and its consequences." "You remember the first day of school?" "

So memory loss alone won ''

So memory loss alone won ' t bar execution. But Kagan wrote, "If this loss combines and interacts with other psychological shortfalls to deprive a person of the ability to understand why the state is" exacting death as punishment, "then the execution is unconstitutional. "The sole request for the court remains whether the prisoner can rationally understand the reasons for his death sentence."

Simply being diagnosed with dementia is not enough to trigger the 8th Amendment, the court said. "Dementia also has milder forms, which allow a person to preserve that understanding" of why the state wants to execute him, Kagan wrote. It is only when a dementia patient does not "rationally understand" the reason for the execution that the 8th Amendment prohibits it.

It not only "offends humanity" to execute someone "so wracked by mental illness" that he does not understand why he's being killed, the court said; It also serves no "retributive value" to execute someone who "has no comprehension of the meaning of the community's judgment."

The opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Chief Justice John Roberts – who has recently joined the liberal judges in some close cases. The conservative judges Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented. They argued that Madison's attorney was improperly "switched to an entirely different argument" than the one that the court had agreed to hear. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who did not sit for the argument, took no part in the decision.


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