The Supreme Court is ordering a new state court hearing to determine whether an Alabama death row inmate is so affected by dementia that he can’t be executed.
The justices ruled 5-3 on Wednesday in favor of inmate Vernon Madison, who killed a police officer in 1985. His lawyers say he has suffered strokes that have left him with severe dementia.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberals in siding with Madison, now 68.
The high court ruling is not the end of the case. Justice Elena Kagan says in her majority opinion that, if the state wants to put Madison to death, an Alabama state court must determine that Madison understands why he is being executed.
The justices have previously said the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment means that people who are insane, delusional or psychotic cannot be executed.
But Kagan, reading a summary of her ruling, said, “Based on our review of the record, we can’t be sure that the state court recognized that Madison’s dementia might render him incompetent to be executed.”
Madison’s attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, applauded the decision.
“Prisoners who become incompetent due to dementia and severe mental illness are vulnerable and should be shielded from abusive and cruel treatment. The court’s opinion affirming the basic principle of a humane system of justice is a significant victory,” Stevenson said in a statement.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall predicted the execution will eventually go forward.
“We expect that when the lower court revisits the matter on remand from the Supreme Court, it will once again find that Madison is competent to finally face the justice that he has so far evaded for nearly 34 years,” Marshall said in a statement.
Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, who last year would have allowed the execution to proceed without hearing the case, dissented. Justice Brett Kavanaugh was not yet on the court when arguments took place in early October.