Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Madison v. Alabama

United States Supreme Court

February 27, 2019

586 U.S. ___ (2019)
v.
ALABAMA VERNON MADISON, PETITIONER

          Argued October 2, 2018

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ALABAMA, MOBILE COUNTY

In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, this Court held that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has "lost his sanity" after sentencing. Id., at 406. And in Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, the Court set out the appropriate competency standard: A State may not execute a prisoner whose "mental state is so distorted by a mental illness" that he lacks a "rational understanding" of "the State's rationale for [his] execution." Id., at 958-959.

Petitioner Vernon Madison was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, he suffered a series of strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. In 2016, Madison petitioned the state trial court for a stay of execution on the ground that he was mentally incompetent, stressing that he could not recollect committing the crime for which he had been sentenced to die. Alabama responded that Madison had a rational understanding of the reasons for his execution, even assuming he had no memory of committing his crime. And more broadly, the State claimed that Madison failed to implicate Ford and Panetti because both decisions concerned themselves with gross delusions, which Madison did not have. Following a competency hearing, the trial court found Madison competent to be executed. On federal habeas review, this Court summarily reversed the Eleventh Circuit's grant of relief, holding that, under the "demanding" and "deferential standard" of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), "[n]either Panetti nor Ford 'clearly established that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed" because of a simple failure to remember his crime. Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S.___, ___. But the Court "ex- press[ed] no view" on the question of Madison's competency outside of the AEDPA context. Id., at ___. When Alabama set a 2018 execution date, Madison returned to state court, arguing once more that his mental condition precluded the State from going forward. The state court again found Madison mentally competent.

         Held:

1. Under Ford and Panetti, the Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime. Panetti asks only about a person's comprehension of the State's reasons for resorting to punishment, not his memory of the crime itself. And the one may exist without the other. Such memory loss, however, still may factor into the analysis Panetti demands. If that loss combines and interacts with other mental shortfalls to deprive a person of the capacity to comprehend why the State is exacting death as a punishment, then the Panetti standard will be satisfied. Pp. 9-11.
2. Under Ford and Panetti, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner even though he suffers from dementia or another disorder rather than psychotic delusions. The Panetti standard focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect; it has no interest in establishing any precise cause. Panetti's references to "gross delusions," 551 U.S., at 960, are no more than a predictable byproduct of that case's facts. Ford and Panetti hinge on the prisoner's "[incomprehension of why he has been singled out" to die, 477 U.S., 409, and kick in if and when that failure of understanding is present, irrespective of whether one disease or another is to blame. In evaluating competency, a judge must therefore look beyond any given diagnosis to a downstream consequence. Pp. 12-14.
3. Because this Court is uncertain whether the state court's decision was tainted by legal error, this case is remanded to that court for renewed consideration of Madison's competency. The state court's brief 2018 ruling-which states only that Madison "did not prove a substantial threshold showing of insanity []"-does not provide any assurance that the court knew a person with dementia, and not psychotic delusions, might receive a stay of execution. Nor does that court's initial 2016 opinion. The sole question on which Madison's competency depends is whether he can reach a rational understanding of why the State wants to execute him. In answering that question-on which this Court again expresses no view-the state court may not rely on any arguments or evidence tainted with the legal errors addressed by this Court. Pp. 14-18.

         Vacated and remanded.

          KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. KAVANAUGH, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

          OPINION

          KAGAN JUSTICE.

         The Eighth Amendment, this Court has held, prohibits the execution of a prisoner whose mental illness prevents him from "rational [ly] understanding" why the State seeks to impose that punishment. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 959 (2007). In this case, Vernon Madison argued that his memory loss and dementia entitled him to a stay of execution, but an Alabama court denied the relief. We now address two questions relating to the Eighth Amendment's bar, disputed below but not in this Court. First, does the Eighth Amendment forbid execution whenever a prisoner shows that a mental disorder has left him without any memory of committing his crime? We (and, now, the parties) think not, because a person lacking such a memory may still be able to form a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence. Second, does the Eighth Amendment apply similarly to a prisoner suffering from dementia as to one experiencing psychotic delusions? We (and, now, the parties) think so, because either condition may-or, then again, may not-impede the requisite comprehension of his punishment. The only issue left, on which the parties still disagree, is what those rulings mean for Madison's own execution. We direct that issue to the state court for further consideration in light of this opinion.

         I

         A

         This Court decided in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments precludes executing a prisoner who has "lost his sanity" after sentencing. Id., at 406. While on death row, Alvin Ford was beset by "pervasive delusion[s]" associated with "[p]aranoid [s]chizophrenia." Id., at 402-403. Surveying both the common law and state statutes, the Court found a uniform practice against taking the life of such a prisoner. See id., at 406-409. Among the reasons for that time-honored bar, the Court explained, was a moral "intuition" that "killing one who has no capacity" to understand his crime or punishment "simply offends humanity." Id., at 407, 409; see id., at 409 (citing the "natural abhorrence civilized societies feel" at performing such an act). Another rationale rested on the lack of "retributive value" in executing a person who has no comprehension of the meaning of the community's judgment. Ibid.; see id., at 421 (Powell, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (stating that the death penalty's "retributive force [] depends on the defendant's awareness of the penalty's existence and purpose"). The resulting rule, now stated as a matter of constitutional law, held "a category of defendants defined by their mental state" incompetent to be executed. Id., at 419.

         The Court clarified the scope of that category in Panetti v. Quarterman by focusing on whether a prisoner can "reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution." 551 U.S., at 958. Like Alvin Ford, Scott Panetti suffered from "gross delusions" stemming from "extreme psychosis." Id., at 936, 960. In reversing a ruling that he could still be executed, the Panetti Court set out the appropriate "standard for competency." Id., at 957. Ford, the Court now noted, had not provided "specific criteria." 551 U.S., at 957. But Ford had explored what lay behind the Eighth Amendment's prohibition, highlighting that the execution of a prisoner who cannot comprehend the reasons for his punishment offends moral values and "serves no retributive purpose." 551 U.S., at 958. Those principles, the Panetti Court explained, indicate how to identify prisoners whom the State may not execute. The critical question is whether a "prisoner's mental state is so distorted by a mental illness" that he lacks a "rational understanding" of "the State's rationale for [his] execution." Id., at 958-959. Or similarly put, the issue is whether a "prisoner's concept of reality" is "so impair[ed]" that he cannot grasp the execution's "meaning and purpose" or the "link between [his] crime and its punishment." Id., at 958, 960.

         B

         Vernon Madison killed a police officer in 1985 during a domestic dispute. An Alabama jury found him guilty of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to death. He has spent most of the ensuing decades on the State's death row.

         In recent years, Madison's mental condition has sharply deteriorated. Madison suffered a series of strokes, including major ones in 2015 and 2016. See Tr. 19, 46-47 (Apr. 14, 2016). He was diagnosed as having vascular dementia, with attendant disorientation and confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss. See id., at 19-20, 52-54. In particular, Madison claims that he can no longer recollect committing the crime for which he has been sentenced to die. See Tr., Pet. Exh. 2, p. 8.

         After his 2016 stroke, Madison petitioned the trial court for a stay of execution on the ground that he had become mentally incompetent. Citing Ford and Panetti, he argued that "he no longer understands" the "status of his case" or the "nature of his conviction and sentence." Pet. for Suspension in No. CC-85-1385.80 (C. C. Mobile Cty., Ala., Feb. 12, 2016), pp. 11, 14. And in a later filing, Madison emphasized that he could not "independently recall the facts of the offense he is convicted of." Brief Pursuant to Order (Apr. 21, 2016), p. 8. Alabama countered that Madison had "a rational understanding of [the reasons for] his impending execution," as required by Ford and Panetti, even assuming he had no memory of committing his crime. Brief on Madison's Competency (April 21, 2016), pp. 4-5, 8. And more broadly, the State claimed that Madison could not possibly qualify as incompetent under those two decisions because both "concerned themselves with '[g]ross delusions'"-which all agree Madison does not have. Id., at 2; see ibid. (Madison "failed to implicate" Ford and Panetti because he "does not suffer from psychosis or delusions").

         Expert reports from two psychologists largely aligned with the parties' contending positions. Dr. John Goff, Madison's expert, found that although Madison "understood] the nature of execution" in the abstract, he did not comprehend the "reasoning behind" Alabama's effort to execute him. Tr., Pet. Exh. 2 (Apr. 14, 2016), p. 8; see id., at 9. Goff stated that Madison had "Major Vascular Neurological Disorder"-also called vascular dementia- which had caused "significant cognitive decline." Ibid. And Goff underscored that Madison "demonstrate[d] retrograde amnesia" about his crime, meaning that he had no "independent recollection[ ]" of the murder. Id., at 8; see id., at 9. For his part, Dr. Karl Kirkland, the court-appointed expert, reported that Madison "was able to discuss his case" accurately and "appear[ed] to understand his legal situation." Tr., Ct. Exh. 1, pp. 10-11. Although Kirkland acknowledged that Madison's strokes had led to cognitive decline, see id., at 10, the psychologist made no mention of Madison's diagnosed vascular dementia. Rather, Kirkland highlighted that "[t]here was no evidence of psychosis, paranoia, or delusion." Id., at 9; see ibid. (Madison "did not seem delusional at all").

         At a competency hearing, Alabama similarly stressed Madison's absence of psychotic episodes or delusions. The State asked both experts to affirm that Madison was "neither delusional [n]or psychotic." Tr. 56; see id., at 22. And its closing argument focused on their agreement that he was not. As the State summarized: "He's not psychotic. He's not delusional." Id., at 81. On the State's view, that fact answered the competency question because "[t]he Supreme Court is looking at whether someone's delusions or someone's paranoia or someone's psychosis is standing in the way of" rationally understanding his punishment. Id., at 82. Madison's counsel disputed that point. "[T]he State would like to say, well, he's not delusional, he's not psychotic," the attorney recapped. Id., at 83. But, she continued, "[t]hat's not really the criteria" under Panetti. Tr. 83. Rather, the Court there barred executing a person with any mental illness-"dementia" and "brain injuries" no less than psychosis and delusions-that prevents him from comprehending "why he is being executed." Ibid.

         The trial court found Madison competent to be executed. Its order first recounted the evidence given by each expert witness. The summary of Kirkland's report and testimony began by stating that the psychologist had "found no evidence of paranoia[, ] delusion [or] psychosis." Order (Apr. 29, 2016), p. 5 (2016 Order). The court then noted Kirkland's view that Madison could "give details of the history of his case" and "appear[ed] to understand his legal situation." Ibid. Turning to the Goff report, the court noted the expert's finding that Madison was "amnesic" and could not recollect his crime. Id., at 6; see id., at 7. In a single, final paragraph, the court provided both its ruling and its reasoning. Madison had failed to show, the court wrote, that he did not "rationally understand the punishment he is about to suffer and why he is about to suffer it." Id., at 10. The court "accept[ed] the testimony of Dr. Kirkland as to the understanding Madison has concerning the situation." Ibid. "Further," the court concluded, "the evidence does not support that Mr. Madison is delusional." Ibid.

         Madison next sought habeas relief in federal court, where he faced the heavy burden of showing that the state-court ruling "involved an unreasonable application of[] clearly established federal law" or rested on an "unreasonable determination of the facts." Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. §2254(d). The District Court rejected his petition, but the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Madison had demonstrated both kinds of indisputable error. See Madison v. Commissioner, 851 F.3d 1173 (2017). This Court then summarily reversed the appeals court's decision. See Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S. ___ (2017) (per curiam). We explained, contrary to the Eleventh Circuit's principal holding, that "[n]either Panetti nor Ford 'clearly established' that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed" because of a simple failure to remember his crime. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 4). And we found that the state court did not act unreasonably-otherwise put, did not err "beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement"-when it found that Madison had the necessary understanding to be executed. Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted). But we made clear that our decision was premised on AEDPA's "demanding" and "deferential standard." Id., at ___, ___ (slip op., at 3, 4). "We express[ed] no view" on the question of Madison's competency "outside of the AEDPA context." Id., at ___ (slip op., at 4).[1]

         When Alabama set an execution date in 2018, Madison returned to state court to argue again that his mental condition precluded the State from going forward. In his petition, Madison reiterated the facts and arguments he had previously presented to the state court. But Madison also claimed that since that court's decision (1) he had suffered further cognitive decline and (2) a state board had suspended Kirkland's license to practice psychology, thus discrediting his prior testimony. See Pet. to Suspend Execution in No. CC-85-1385.80 (C. C. Mobile Cty., Ala., Dec. 18, 2017), pp. 1-2, 16-19.[2] Alabama responded that nothing material had changed since the court's first competency hearing. See Motion to Dismiss (Dec. 20, 2017), p. 9. The State also repeated its argument that Panetti permits executing Madison, pointing to the experts' agreement that he is "not delusional or psychotic" and asserting that neither "memory impairment [n]or dementia [could] suffice to satisfy the Panetti and Ford standards" without "an expansion" of those decisions. Motion to Dismiss 4, 10. A week before the scheduled execution, the state court again found Madison mentally competent. Its brief order stated only that Madison "did not provide a substantial threshold showing of insanity[ ] sufficient to convince this Court to stay the execution." App. A to Pet. for Cert.

         Madison then filed in this Court a request to stay his execution and a petition for certiorari. We ordered the stay on the scheduled execution date and granted the petition a few weeks later. See 583 U.S.___, ___ (2018). Because the case now comes to us on direct review of the state court's decision (rather than in a habeas proceeding), AEDPAs deferential standard no longer governs. (And for that reason-contrary to the dissent's suggestion, post, at 12-our decision on Madison's habeas petition cannot help resolve the questions raised here.)

         II

         Two issues relating to Panetti's application are before us. Recall that our decision there held the Eighth Amendment to forbid executing a prisoner whose mental illness makes him unable to "reach a rational understanding of the reason for [his] execution." 551 U.S., at 958; see supra, at 2-3. The first question presented is whether Panetti prohibits executing Madison merely because he cannot remember committing his crime. The second question raised is whether Panetti permits executing Madison merely because he suffers from dementia, rather than psychotic delusions.[3] In prior stages of this case, as we have described, the parties disagreed about those matters. See supra, at 4-8. But at this Court, Madison accepted Alabama's position on the first issue and Alabama accepted Madison's on the second. See, e.g., Tr. of Oral Arg. 11, 36. And rightly so. As the parties now recognize, the standard set out in Panetti supplies the answers to both questions. First, a person lacking memory of his crime may yet rationally understand why the State seeks to execute him; if so, the Eighth Amendment poses no bar to his execution. Second, a person suffering from dementia may be unable to rationally understand the reasons for his sentence; if so, the Eighth Amendment does not allow his execution. What matters is whether a person has the "rational understanding" Panetti requires-not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.

         A

         Consider initially a person who cannot remember his crime because of a mental disorder, but who otherwise has full cognitive function. The memory loss is genuine: Let us say the person has some kind of amnesia, which has produced a black hole where that recollection should be. But the person remains oriented in time and place; he can make logical connections and order his thoughts; and he comprehends familiar concepts of crime and punishment. Can the State execute him for a murder? When we considered this case before, using the deferential standard applicable in habeas, we held that a state court could allow such an execution without committing inarguable error. See Madison, 583 U.S., at ___(slip op., at 4) (stating that no prior decision had "clearly established" the opposite); supra, at 6. Today, we address the issue straight-up, sans any deference to a state court. Again, is the failure to remember committing a crime alone enough to prevent a State from executing a prisoner?

         It is not, under Panetti's own terms. That decision asks about understanding, not memory-more specifically, about a person's understanding of why the State seeks capital punishment for a crime, not his memory of the crime itself. And the one may exist without the other. Do you have an independent recollection of the Civil War? Obviously not. But you may still be able to reach a rational-indeed, a sophisticated-understanding of that conflict and its consequences. Do you recall your first day of 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 grasping the story. And similarly, if you somehow blacked out a crime you committed, but later learned what you had done, you could well appreciate the State's desire to impose a penalty. Assuming, that is, no ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.