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Does Dementia on Death Row Matter?

By George Khoury, Esq. on October 03, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The case of Vernon Madison was just argued before the Supreme Court again. However, this time, there might be a bit of a catch 22, or perhaps, a catch 8, seeing as how the Court is one justice shy of the full 9.

Nevertheless, for the death row inmate suffering from dementia, the novel legal questions his case has presented has stumped scholars and justices over the past few years. The big question boils down to whether a person with dementia, who cannot remember his crime(s), should be executed. Generally, there are exceptions to death sentences. Namely, per SCOTUS's own rulings, minors and the mentally incompetent cannot be executed thanks to the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Questions Presented, This Time

The matter currently before the High Court seeks to answer two rather broad questions:

  • Whether it is constitutionally okay to execute someone who doesn't remember what they did; and
  • Whether dementia renders a person incompetent to the point where execution is unconstitutional.

In regard to the first question, it seems like the Justices may be clearly coming down against Madison. However, the latter questions seemed to be left more open. Justices sought to get to the heart of this question by inquiring whether the state court properly considered whether dementia could cause an inmate to be too incompetent to execute.

The state seemed focused on the fact that Madison understands that he is incarcerated for murder, and that he will be executed for it. However, this must be weighed against, as his defense suggests, the fact that his dementia makes it questionable that he actually understands why he is being punished, and the severity of the punishment.

Notably, last time the matter was before the Court, despite the strong notions the Justices have on the death penalty, the verdict was unanimous.

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