CASE SELECTION 2018: “Madison v. Alabama”

It is official. After four successive weeks of deliberations, SCOTUS Predictions has selected Madison v. Alabama for the case in which we will author our own opinion before the Supreme Court releases theirs. In selecting Madison, we eliminated the two remaining cases from Round 3, Gamble v. U.S. and Timbs v. Indiana. Before we made our final selection, we have combed through (and finally eliminated) the 37 other cases that have been granted certiorari for the Supreme Court’s next term thus far. In other words, Madison v. Alabama stands atop these more than three-dozen others—both in the quality of the legal questions it presents and its implications for the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. The case is not a straightforward one; its prior proceedings are admittedly inebriated with rehearings and reversals, and its subject matter is neither pleasant nor simple. Regardless, the case will present new definitions of what the law deems “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment, as well as a dramatic increase in the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence. A background of the events leading to the case are outlined as follows:

On April 18, 1985, Vernon Madison, Sr. of Mobile, Alabama, shot and killed Juvenile Officer Julius Schulte of the Mobile Police Department. Officer Schulte was responding to a missing child complaint issued by Cheryl Greene, the girlfriend of Madison at the time. Madison and Greene had just recently ended their relationship, prompting Madison to move out of Greene’s residence. When Madison returned to the residence on April 18 to obtain his belongings, Greene notified him of her missing daughter. Madison then left the residence to go look for her child.

It was during Madison’s absence that Greene filed the missing child complaint and Officer Schulte then responded. By the time Officer Schulte had arrived at her residence, however, her daughter had been found. Officer Schulte then found himself in the middle of a domestic dispute between Greene and Madison, who had returned from his search shortly after Officer Schulte’s arrival.

According to witness testimony, Madison was visibly upset with Greene about her calling the police. He asked multiple times “Why you call the cops?” and hollered on multiple occasions “I can’t believe you called the cops!” Officer Schulte remained on the scene until Madison left the residence. When Madison did so, however, he obtained a .32 caliber pistol from his vehicle and returned back to the scene. By this time, Officer Schulte had left Greene’s residence and had just gotten back into his patrol car, which was parked on the street. Madison then approached the car from the rear and, without warning, fired two shots into the back of Officer Schulte’s head. The gunshots fatally wounded Officer Schulte, as he died a few hours after. Madison then aimed the pistol at Greene, who attempted to flee. Madison shot Greene in the back, proceeded to straddle her in the street, and fired several more shots.

After his arrest and indictment, a jury found Madison guilty of two counts of capital murder on September 12, 1985, in the Mobile County Circuit Court. The trial court subsequently sentenced him to death. However, on appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Madison’s conviction, holding that the jury selection for Madison’s case was “racially discriminatory.” Specifically, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office had struck all seven of the African American citizens called for jury duty in Madison’s trial, violating Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

At his retrial, Madison did not deny shooting Officer Schulte. Rather, his defense hindered on the argument that he was not guilty by reason of mental insanity. The trial court was not sympathetic to his argument, however, and again found him guilty. Madison was sentenced to death. Yet again, however, the Court of Appeals reversed his conviction on the ground that the Prosecution engaged in misconduct when it provoked testimony “based partly on facts not in evidence,” thus violating Ex parte Wesley, 575 So. 2d 127 (Ala. 1990).

In his third trial, the jury again found Madison guilty of capital murder. It was during this trial that both parties determined that Madison was plagued by mental illness, including paranoid delusions. An expert psychiatrist testified that Madison “was out of touch with reality and unable to gather his thoughts” and “could not appreciate fully the criminality of his conduct.” Both parties further established that Mr. Madison had been diagnosed as mentally ill years earlier and had been required by Mississippi prison psychiatrists to take numerous psychotropic medications.

The jury found Madison guilty, but this time did not sentence him to death. Rather, upon ascertaining the profoundness of Madison’s mental illness, the jury opted to sentence Madison to life in prison without parole. The circuit judge presiding over the case, however, overruled the jury and sentenced Madison to death for a third time. This time, the Appeals Court denied review, and the Supreme Court eventually denied certiorari (see Madison v. Alabama, 525 U.S. 1006 (1998)).

∴     ∴     ∴

Nearly eighteen years later, after multiple failed appeals brought forth by Madison on a variety of grounds, the State of Alabama attempted to set an execution date for Madison on January 22, 2016. Before the Alabama Supreme Court could do so, however, Madison’s counsel petitioned to stay (or “delay”) the execution because Madison’s mental condition had significantly deteriorated. Specifically, in May 2015 and January 2016, Madison suffered multiple severe strokes resulting in profound physical and cognitive decline. One of these strokes, which occurred on January 4, 2016, rendered Madison temporarily insensate and left him unconscious and fecally incontinent in his prison cell. It was a thalamic stroke, which resulted in significant memory loss due to extensive damage to Madison’s thalamus. As a result, Madison now suffers from vascular dementia and retrograde amnesia (a complete inability to recall memories that were formed prior to the stroke).

Therefore, based on his mental condition, Madison has no recollection of the crime he has committed. Dr. John Goff, a licensed neuropsychologist who was directed to evaluate Madison’s competency, determined that Madison “cannot independently recall the facts of the offense for which he was convicted,” and that Madison is “unable to recollect the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest or to his trial, and could not recall the name of the victim.”

Dr. Goff’s neuropsychological testing showed multiple grave impairments to Madison’s cognitive functioning. For example, Madison has an IQ of 72, placing him on the borderline of mental deficiency. Madison could not recite the alphabet beyond the letter “G.” Madison could not perform serial three additions (3, 6, 9, 12, …). He could name neither the previous President nor the Warden of the correctional facility at which he had been incarcerated for over thirty years. Further, Dr. Goff noted that Madison has difficulty processing information and cannot rephrase simple sentences.

Madison’s previous strokes left him in an altered mental state and diminished his capability to comprehend information in general. He suffers from encephalomalacia, a condition in which multiple areas of tissue within the brain die. At the April 2016 hearing before the district court, it was evident that Madison can only “speak in a dysarthric or slurred manner, is legally blind, can no longer walk independently, and has urinary incontinence.”

On April 29, 2016, the Alabama district court denied Madison’s petition to stay the execution. Madison then filed a petition for habeas corpus review in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. The District Court denied review. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, granting review and determining that Madison’s competency was compromised. All three judges agreed that “Vernon Madison is currently incompetent,” and that Alabama cannot “consistent with the Constitution, execute him at this time” (851 F.3d 1173, 1190 (2017)).

Madison was not freed from his execution, however. A per curiam decision by the Supreme Court in Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S. ____ (2017), overturned the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to grant Madison habeas corpus relief.  The Supreme Court did not, however, rule on the merits of Madison’s case. Madison’s stay of execution now dismissed, Alabama immediately moved to set another execution date for Madison. The Alabama Supreme Court set the execution date for January 25, 2018.

But in this case’s final twist to date, new information emerged about a separate neuropsychologist who evaluated Madison for the prosecution at his second and third trials. Dr. Karl Kirkland, on whom the Alabama circuit court and the Supreme Court relied in finding Madison competent for execution, was found to be unreliable in the prosecution’s arguments. At the time of his evaluation of Madison, Dr. Kirkland was suffering from substance abuse, used forged prescriptions to obtain controlled substances (including doing so just four days after the evaluation), was charged with four felonies, and was suspended from practicing psychology.

Madison’s counsel thus filed yet another petition for habeas corpus relief pursuant to Alabama Code § 15-16-23, based on both the emergence of this new information regarding Dr. Kirkland and the ever-continuing decline of Madison’s physical and cognitive functions. At the subsequent hearing, the circuit court did not refute the allegations brought against Dr. Kirkland. Despite this, on January 16, 2018, in Case No. CC-1985-001385.90, the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama, held that Madison “did not provide a substantial threshold showing of insanity . . . sufficient to convince this Court to stay the execution.” Consequently, the court denied Madison’s petition to stay the execution.

Two days later, Madison’s counsel went directly to the Supreme Court and filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to determine whether Madison’s execution was lawful. On January 25, the Court ordered for a stay of Madison’s execution. Ultimately, on February 26, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to weigh in on the merits of Madison’s case. Thus, after thirty years on Alabama’s death row, Madison and his counsel will now hear the answer of whether his execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s provisions against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The questions that are presented before the Court are similar and twofold. First, the Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (note that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Eighth Amendment against the states. See Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962)). Further, the Supreme Court has addressed Eighth Amendment challenges to capital punishment on the basis of the diminished capacity doctrine. Of particular interest are the Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), and Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007). In Ford, the Court held that the “Eighth Amendment prohibits the State from inflicting the penalty of death upon a prisoner who is insane” (477 U.S. at 410). Next, at issue in Panetti was whether an individual who is aware of his death sentence but is unaware of its implications is mentally competent to be executed, pursuant to Ford. Though the Court declined to directly answer this question, it held that the Fifth Circuit erred in its application of Ford in upholding the petitioner’s death sentence. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, asserted that the Court of Appeals “treat[ed] a prisoner’s delusional belief system as irrelevant if the prisoner knows that the State has identified his crimes as the reason for his execution” (551 U.S. at 958). Therefore, the first question to be addressed in Madison is: Pursuant to the Eighth Amendment and the Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman, may a state execute a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of his commission of the capital offense?

Second, the latter question presented draws not on the Court’s jurisprudence but rather the basic constitutional right against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As has been demonstrated, Madison has suffered multiple severe strokes and subsequent vascular dementia, wiping away the memories he formed prior to the strokes. As a result, Madison can recall neither his murders of Officer Schulte and Cheryl Greene, nor the legal proceedings of his murder trials and hearings to date. Furthermore, his mental disability coupled with vascular dementia has diminished his mental and physical capabilities at an incredible level—to a point at which he is unable to understand the consequences of his actions or the implications of his execution. Thus, drawing on the provisions against cruel and unusual punishment, the second question to be addressed in Madison is: Do evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment prohibit the execution of a prisoner whose competency has been compromised by vascular dementia and multiple strokes causing severe cognitive dysfunction and a degenerative medical condition which prevents him from both remembering the crime for which he was convicted and understanding the circumstances of his scheduled execution?

What a mouthful. Seems complicated, doesn’t it? Indeed, the questions are neither pleasant nor straightforward. In short, the questions may be framed as follows: (1), Whether the execution of an individual with multiple mental deficiencies and a degenerative mental condition violates the Eighth Amendment; and, (2), if so, whether doing so coincides with the Supreme Court’s rulings in two of its prior cases. Clearly, these questions are extremely applicable to the Court’s jurisprudence moving forward.

The schedule from this point forward is simple. Our case has been selected—step one is complete. The next steps will be to adequately review the briefs presented before the Court, fully familiarize ourselves with the history of prior capital punishment cases, and competently ascertain the implications of the case’s decision on society at large. First, when reviewing the briefs, we will periodically release a summary of each brief. These briefs will include the Briefs of Petitioner and Respondent (the written arguments of both sides of the case) as well as the Amicus/Amici Curiae Briefs (third party briefs filed “as a friend (or “as friends”) of the Court”). Second, when studying the jurisprudence of capital punishment, we may release reviews of relevant death penalty cases (for example, Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman). Third, the implications of the decision on society as a whole will be expressed in due time and by appropriate measures (perhaps in our decision and the Court’s).

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument for the case on Tuesday, October 2, at 11:00am EDT. A transcript of the argument will be published soon after. As discussed in a prior article, we will likely have until mid-January to issue our decision. Thus, the timer is set: about six months and falling!

Later today, we will post an article detailing the basic facts of the case (questions presented, who the petitioner and respondent are, documents filed, etc.). Otherwise, stay tuned for all further updates.

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