U.S. Supreme Court justices, delving into the issue of aging prisoners with dementia, struggled on Tuesday over whether a convicted Alabama murderer should be spared the death penalty because strokes have wiped out his memory of committing the crime.
Vernon Madison, 68, was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of a Mobile police officer in 1985.
During an hour of arguments, the justices heard from both Alabama and Madison's attorney that severe cognitive decline could preclude a state from executing inmates who cannot understand what was happening to them. But it was unclear how the court would decide on whether Madison fits that criteria.
The justices, on the second day of their new term, must determine whether executing Madison would violate the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A ruling is due by June.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a death penalty critic, noted that there are many aging inmates who, like Madison, have been sitting on death row for decades.
"So this will become a more common problem," Breyer said.
The Supreme Court has previously imposed limits on capital punishment for the mentally incompetent or those who are intellectually disabled.
Madison has suffered several strokes in recent years, most recently in 2016, resulting in brain damage, dementia and memory impairment, according to court papers. He is legally blind, cannot walk on his own and speaks with a slur.
The dispute centers on whether Madison can understand the connection between his crime and the punishment he is due to receive. The state has said Madison can understand the link. A federal appeals court ruled last year that he cannot.
The justices ruled last year that the state could execute Madison, but on January 25 the high court then halted his execution and a month later agreed to hear his 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.
The state said that Madison is not delusional or psychotic and he understands that he is being punished for murder. Even if he cannot recall the crime, he can be punished for it, the state said.
Madison's attorneys have said that advances in medical science make clear the nature of his impairment, making him unqualified for capital punishment, especially considering society's "evolving standards of decency.”
Madison, who is black, was sentenced to death in 1994 in his third trial after his first two convictions were thrown out on appeal for racial discrimination in jury selection and other prosecutorial misconduct.