The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously reversed a court that had found an Alabama death row inmate ineligible for execution because his declining health had left him unable to remember the murder he had committed, the Washington Post reports. The justices said that because the high court never has found that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his crime — as opposed to being able to comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit erred in stopping Vernon Madison’s execution. Justice Stephen Breyer said the case highlighted the issue of how long waits for the enforcement of death sentences have created a class of aging death row inmates who present new constitutional questions about capital punishment.
In 1985, Madison shot Mobile, Al., police officer Julius Schulte twice in the back of the head after Schulte responded to a domestic call. Efforts to execute Madison, now 67, for the crime have dragged on for decades. “He has lived nearly half of his life on death row,” Breyer wrote. “During that time, he has suffered severe strokes, which caused vascular dementia and numerous other significant physical and mental problems. He is legally blind. His speech is slurred. He cannot walk independently. He is incontinent. His disability leaves him without a memory of his commission of a capital offense.” Breyer, who has tried to interest the court in reexamining whether the death penalty can be applied constitutionally, said the average wait on death row for the 21 people who have been executed in 2017 is 19 years. No other justice joined Breyer’s concurrence, and no conservative justice rebutted him.