Law Quarterly

Mental Disability and Capital Punishment

By Tara Andryshak


Thirty-three years ago, in 1985, Vernon Madison shot and killed a police officer, and shot and injured his girlfriend while on parole. Madison had three trials, arguing during the first two that he was mentally ill and in the third that he was acting in self-defense and thus should be considered not guilty. He was sentenced in 1994 after a jury recommended life without parole. In January of 2018, Madison was set to be executed. He was evaluated and it was determined that he understood enough to know what he was being executed for. Madison filed a petition, arguing that he was not competent enough but did not receive an answer until the day of his scheduled execution. He ate two oranges as his last meal and did not have any final words. Half an hour prior to the execution, however, Justice Clarence Thomas put a stay on his execution.

Justice Thomas’ rule was based on the fact that during Madison’s time in prison he had several strokes, rendering him unable to remember ever committing the crime due to contracting vascular dementia. “He does not understand why the state of Alabama is attempting to execute him,” his attorneys stated. The United States Supreme Court received an appeal from the defense which the justices considered compelling enough to hear as a case. Madison’s argument is set to be heard on October 2, 2018. Here, the justices will consider the legality and constitutionality of putting a criminal to death who can not even remember committing the crime.[1]

The constitutionality of this stems from the Eighth Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”[2] Cruel and unusual punishment includes but is not limited to torture, deliberately degrading punishment, or punishment that is too severe for the crime committed.[3] This is what Madison’s attorneys are arguing, that putting someone to death who does not have any recollection of the crime nor can understand why they are being put to death is cruel and unusual punishment, and thus against the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

One case that pertains to this issue is Atkins v. Virginia (2002). Daryl Renard Atkins was charged with abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder. A psychologist who interviewed Atkins determined that he had an IQ of 59, thirty-one points lower than normal intelligence. He was sentenced to death, but later argued that using capital punishment against someone with a mental disorder constitutes as cruel and unusual punishment and thus should violate the Eighth Amendment.[4] The Virginia Supreme Court agreed with Atkins while disagreeing with an earlier United States Supreme Court Case, Perry v. Lynaugh (1989), which ruled that the execution of the mentally disabled is not in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.[5] In a 6-3 decision the court held that executing the mentally disabled is in fact cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.[6]

Another relevant case pertaining to cruel and unusual punishment is Ford v. Wainwright (1986). In this case, Alvin Bernard Ford was charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to death. At the time of the murder, trial, and sentencing there was no indication of Ford having any sort of mental disability. However, while on death row Ford’s mental health diminished. He was evaluated by medical professionals who ruled that he was still competent enough to understand the nature of his crime. Ford sued, causing the case to reach the United States Supreme Court. In its decision, the court found that executing the mentally insane would be “savage and inhumane.” Thus, according to the United States Supreme Court, the Eighth Amendment, more particularly the cruel and unusual punishment clause, does not allow states to perform capital punishment on the clinically insane. The court also ruled that further evaluation needed to be conducted on Ford which ultimately concluded that he was too incompetent to be executed.[7]

The justices of the United States Supreme Court have to rely on past cases, such as Atkins v. Virginia (2002) and Ford v. Wainwright (1986) come October when they start the hearing process for Madison v. Alabama (2018). However, Madison’s case differs from the others because not only does Madison not understand why he is being executed, but he also does not even remember committing the crime. As Justice Ginsburg puts it, “The issue whether a State may administer the death penalty to a person whose disability leaves him without memory of his commission of a capital offense is a substantial question not yet addressed by the Court,” and one that will change the fate of many people on death row today and in the future.[8]


Almsay, Steve and Mayra Cuevas. “Supreme Court Stays Execution of Inmate Who Lawyers

Say is Not Competent.” CNN. January 26, 2018.

“Atkins v. Virginia.” Oyez. Accessed September 7, 2018.

“Atkins v. Virginia.” Case Briefs. Accessed September 7, 2018.

Bader Ginsburg, Ruth. “Jefferson Dunn, Commissioner, Alabama Department Of Corrections v.

Vernon Madison.” 2017.

“Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed September 7, 2018.

“Eighth Amendment.” Cornell Law School. Accessed September 7, 2018.

“Ford v. Wainwright.” Oyez. Accessed September 7, 2018.

“Penry v. Lynaugh.” Oyez. Accessed September 7, 2018.

  1. Steve Almsay and Mayra Cuevas, “Supreme Court Stays Execution of Inmate Who Lawyers Say is Not Competent,” CNN, January 26, 2018,

  2. “Eighth Amendment,” Cornell Law School, accessed September 7, 2018,

  3. “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” Merriam-Webster, accessed September 7, 2018,

  4. “Atkins v. Virginia,” Case Briefs, accessed September 7, 2018,

  5. “Atkins v. Virginia,” Oyez, accessed September 7, 2018,

  6. “Penry v. Lynaugh,” Oyez, accessed September 7, 2018,

  7. “Ford v. Wainwright,” Oyez, accessed September 7, 2018,

  8. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Jefferson Dunn, Commissioner, Alabama Department Of Corrections v. Vernon Madison,” 2017.

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