The United States Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court ruling that an Alabama man convicted of killing a police officer in 1985 was no longer legally eligible to be executed because strokes wiped out his memory of committing the murder.
An appeals court ruling that 67-year-old Vernon Madison could not be put to death because his memory loss had left him unable to understand the connection between his crime and the punishment he is due to receive.
In an unsigned and unanimous opinion, the nine justices said that Supreme Court precedent has not clearly established "that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime."
The justices said that under federal law, they must defer to lower court decisions in the case.
Madison shot Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile, twice in the back of the head as Schulte supervised Madison's move out of his former girlfriend's house, according to court papers. He was sentenced to death after a trial in 1994, and has spent decades on death row.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a sharp critic of the death penalty, agreed with the decision to reverse the ruling favoring Madison but in a separate opinion wrote that the case illustrates a basic problem with how capital punishment is administered in the United States. "That problem concerns the unconscionably long periods of time that prisoners often spend on death row awaiting execution," Breyer said.
Madison has suffered several strokes in recent years, including in May 2015 and January 2016, resulting in dementia and memory impairment, court papers said. He is legally blind, cannot walk on his own, and speaks with a slur.
After his execution date was set for May 2016, Madison's attorneys filed a court challenge saying he was not competent to be executed because he could not remember committing the murder. A state court and a lower federal court denied the request.
But the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution, and an appeal of that action led to a 4-4 split at the Supreme Court, which at the time was short one justice, that left the stay intact.
With the case sent back to the court, the 11th Circuit held in a 2-1 ruling last March that Madison could not be executed, saying the evidence showed he has a serious mental disorder resulting in dementia and believes he did not kill anyone, the court said.
"A finding that a man with no memory of what he did wrong has a rational understanding of why he is being put to death is patently unreasonable," the court wrote.
Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that Madison understands the nature, cause and consequences of his death sentence.
"That Madison claims he forgot the murder he committed - a murder for which he has never accepted responsibility - is not a legitimate reason to bar his execution," the state said in a legal brief.