The Supreme Court on Wednesday clarified the circumstances in which a person with a mental disability can be put to death.
The government can execute a prisoner even though he does not remember committing his crime, the court said. But he can not execute the prisoner if he does not understand why he was "excluded" from dying, the High Court said in his decision 5-3. If a person with dementia can not understand the reason for his execution, the court found that the murder of the prisoner was unconstitutional.
The court blocked the execution of 68-year-old Vernon Madison, suffering from dementia, asking a lower court to determine whether Madison could "rationally understand" why he had been put to death.
Lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who pleaded for Madison, said he was "delighted" with the decision. "Prisoners who become incompetent because of dementia and severe mental illness are vulnerable and should be protected from cruel and abusive treatment," Stevenson said in a statement. "The court's opinion affirming the basic tenet of a human justice system is a significant victory."
Madison spent more than 30 years in solitary confinement in Alabama, waiting for execution. In 1985, he shot and killed a police officer who had reacted to a dispute involving Madison and his girlfriend.
Ultimately sentenced to death, Madison has since had several strokes, a vascular dementia and no longer has any memory of the crime, said his lawyer. The High Court examined the case to determine whether Madison's execution violated the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" contained in the eighth amendment of the US Constitution.
Do not remember the crime is not an obstacle to execution, said the court in its decision. "A person who does not remember his crime can still understand rationally why the state is trying to execute it.If this is the case, the eighth amendment does not interfere with his or her execution, "Judge Elena Kagan wrote by majority.
"Do you have an independent recollection of the American Civil War?" "Of course not, but you can still achieve a rational, even sophisticated, understanding of this conflict and its consequences," Kagan wrote. "Do you remember your first day in school?" Probably not, but if your mother told you years later that you were sent home for hitting a classmate, you would have no trouble. to understand the story. "
So, only memory loss will not hinder the run. But, wrote Kagan, "if this loss combines and interacts with other mental weaknesses to deprive a person of the ability to understand why the state claims the death penalty," then the execution is unconstitutional. "The only investigation the court faces is whether the prisoner can understand rationally the reasons for his death sentence."
A simple diagnosis of dementia is not enough to trigger the eighth amendment, the court said. "Dementia also has milder forms, which allow a person to preserve that understanding" of why the state wants to execute it, wrote Kagan. This is only when a patient with dementia does not "rationally understand" the reason for the execution that the eighth amendment forbids.
Running a person "so afflicted by a mental illness" that he "does not understand why he is killed" is not just an "offense to humanity," said the court; it also serves no "retributive value" to execute someone who "has no understanding of the meaning of community judgment".
Judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts, who recently joined the Liberal judges in some cases, joined this opinion. Conservative judges Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch were dissenting. They argued that Madison's lawyer had mistakenly "switched to a totally different argument" from the one the court had agreed to hear. Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who did not attend the discussion, took no part in the decision.