WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday removed an obstacle to Alabama’s efforts to execute a convicted killer who is in declining health, ruling the inmate knows he will be put to death as punishment.
The justices unanimously reversed an appellate ruling that had blocked the execution of Vernon Madison, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1985.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said his office would seek an execution date for Madison.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Madison, 67, is incompetent to be executed because he has suffered from strokes and doesn’t understand his death sentence or remember what he did.
The Supreme Court said in an unsigned opinion that testimony shows Madison “recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed,” even if he doesn’t remember the killing itself.
The court noted that federal courts’ review of Madison’s case is constrained because of a 1996 law that was intended to limit federal judges’ second-guessing of state court decisions. State courts upheld Madison’s death sentence, and the Supreme Court, applying the 1996 law, said those decisions should be respected.
“Under that deferential standard, Madison’s claim … must fail,” the court wrote.
The justices have never ruled on whether someone who doesn’t remember their crime can be executed.
Madison was convicted of killing Mobile police Officer Julius Schulte, who had responded to a domestic call involving Madison. Prosecutors said Madison crept up and shot Schulte in the back of the head as he sat in his police car.
Madison has been on death row “nearly half his life,” Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a separate opinion in which he renewed his call for the court to consider the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative who are representing Madison argued that his health declined during his decades on death row and that strokes and dementia have left him frequently confused and disoriented. The Equal Justice Initiative is a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit organization that represents prisoners in need, including those on death row.
The appellate court in May halted Madison’s execution seven hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. A divided U.S. Supreme Court maintained the stay.