Capital Punishment

Justices Allow Execution of Inmate Who Cannot Recall His Crime

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A court-appointed psychologist and one hired by Mr. Madison’s lawyers generally agreed that he understood what he was accused of and how the state planned to punish him. But Mr. Madison’s psychologist found that Mr. Madison could not recall his crime and believed that he “never went around killing folks.”

A state trial judge allowed the execution to proceed, and a federal judge agreed. But a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled that executing an inmate who could not remember what he had done would violate the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has barred the execution of people who lack a “rational understanding” of the reason they are to be put to death. The appeals court ruled that had Mr. Madison met that standard.

“Due to his dementia and related memory impairments, Mr. Madison lacks a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his execution,” Judge Beverly B. Martin wrote for the majority. “A person does not rationally understand his punishment if he is simply blindly accepting what he has been told.”

In dissent, Judge Adalberto Jordan agreed that Mr. Madison was mentally incompetent. But Judge Jordan said federal courts could not hear his challenge in light of a 1996 law that limits post-conviction challenges.

In Monday’s unsigned opinion in the case, Dunn v. Madison, No. 17-193, the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Madison could not satisfy the 1996 law, which allows post-conviction challenges in federal court only when the state court had acted unreasonably in assessing the evidence or had run afoul of “clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, agreed that the question of “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.”

“Appropriately presented,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “the issue would warrant full airing.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Breyer returned to two themes he has been exploring for years. First, he said “the unconscionably long periods of time that prisoners often spend on death row awaiting execution” may present a constitutional problem.

His second point was broader.

“Rather than develop a constitutional jurisprudence that focuses upon the special circumstances of the aged, however,” Justice Breyer wrote, “I believe it would be wiser to reconsider the root cause of the problem — the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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