U.S. Supreme Court

MRI scan of a brain.

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The Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of an inmate with dementia if he is unable to form a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The standard set in a 2007 case for inmates suffering from psychotic delusions, Panetti v. Quarterman, also applies to inmates with dementia, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-3 opinion.

The court ruled in the case of Vernon Madison, an Alabama inmate who suffers from vascular dementia and can’t remember killing a police officer in 1985 during a domestic dispute.

Failing to remember a crime isn’t a bar to execution if the defendant still has a rational understanding of why the state wants to execute him, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion. “Moral values do not exempt the simply forgetful from punishment, whatever the neurological reason for their lack of recall,” Kagan wrote.

What matters, Kagan said, is whether a person has a rational understanding of the reasons for his death sentence, “not whether he has any particular memory or any particular mental illness.”

Kagan’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh did not participate in the case.

Madison’s case now returns to the state court for review of whether he has the rational understanding necessary for execution.

A 2018 ruling by the state court consisted of one sentence stating that Madison “did not provide a substantial threshold showing of insanity” to obtain an execution stay. It’s unclear if the state court knew a person with dementia could obtain a stay, and a “do-over” is required, Kagan said.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Alito complained that cert had been granted to decide whether the Eighth Amendment bars execution of a murderer who can’t remember the crime.

Perhaps understanding that Madison would lose on that issue, his lawyers switched to an argument that the state had wrongly based its stay refusal on the fact that Madison did not suffer from mental illness, Alito said.

“Counsel’s tactics flagrantly flouted our rules” and the majority “rewards counsel’s trick,” Alito wrote.

Even if the issue were properly before the court, there is little reason to think the state court based its stay refusal on an erroneous distinction between dementia and other mental conditions, Alito said.

The case is Madison v. Alabama.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.