A Slippery Slope: Redefining Cruel and Unusual Punishment in Madison v. Alabama

by Sierra Stockley


Madison v. Alabama is a case pending a decision from the United States Supreme Court. The case was argued before the Court on Tuesday, October 2, 2018 with Bryan A. Stevenson, Esq., representing the petitioner, Vernon Madison, and Alabama’s Deputy Attorney General, Thomas R. Govan, Jr., acting on behalf of the respondent.

Regarding the issue raised in the case, the Court must decide two crucial points: whether or not a state may execute a prisoner who has no memory of his offense, and more specifically, whether the Eighth Amendment’s language of “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibits a state from executing a prisoner who faces severe cognitive dysfunction and therefore can neither recall the crime nor comprehend the circumstances of his execution.

This piece will discuss the crucial aspects of “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment as it pertains to Madison v. Alabama and how the Supreme Court’s decision could potentially redefine the phrase’s interpretation. Initially, some expository information about the case will be offered. Following the establishment of the facts, this comment will analyze reasoning for a ruling for or against Madison, while taking previous, similar cases into account such as Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman. Finally, it will address the predicted ruling’s implications for future cases and how this could redefine or reinforce long-held interpretations of the Eighth Amendment.


The appellant, Vernon Madison, is an inmate at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama who has served a death row sentence for over thirty years. His imprisonment is the result of a 1985 capital murder, in which he shot and killed a Mobile police officer by the name of Julius Schulte. Madison underwent three different trials, with the first two death convictions being overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. The first reversal in 1986 was due to the District Attorney’s office practicing discrimination and exclusion of African-American jury members, which allowed for racial bias against Madison, who is an African-American. The second reversal occurred because of prosecutorial misconduct, as the prosecution relied on facts that had not been included in evidence. During this trial, Madison had plead not guilty by reason of mental defect.

Madison’s third trial was held in 1994, and after claims of shooting Officer Schulte in self-defense along with evidence of Madison’s use of anti-psychotic medication, the jury sentenced him to serve life in prison without parole. The trial judge exercised a motion for judgement notwithstanding the verdict, overturning the life imprisonment sentence and replacing it with that of execution. In this time, Madison’s multiple petitions for writs of certiorari were denied between the Alabama Supreme Court, the district court, and the United States Supreme Court.

Madison endured numerous strokes in January 2016, leading to exhibited symptoms of brain damage, including but not limited to blindness, urinary incontinence, ineptitude to walk unassisted, and slowed speech. The brain damage associated with the series of strokes left Madison incapable of recollecting both the crime and the circumstances of the upcoming execution in May 2016. In an attempt to receive a stay in execution, Madison filed a habeas petition to the United States Supreme Court in April and another to the district court in May. Both were subsequently denied; however, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted habeas relief before being reversed by the United States Supreme Court in November 2017 via the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the reasoning that the lower courts were “not so lacking in justification”.

Madison had since been rescheduled for execution in January of 2018 until the United States Supreme Court ultimately granted the case certiorari on February 26.

Potential for a Promising Ruling

In rendering an opinion for the case, the Supreme Court must acknowledge precedent set forth in similar cases. Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman are two cases that complement each other in their Eighth Amendment-guided decisions while introducing a scope to be relied upon in Madison. During 1986, Ford saw a 7-2 majority hold that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibited the death penalty among the legally insane. Though the defendant, Alvin Ford, exhibited no signs of mental decline at the time of the first-degree murder he committed, his trial, or his sentencing, his mental state became more severe. Regardless of mental assessments, the state of Florida intended to carry out the scheduled execution. Though Ford established a crucial standpoint in legal proceedings, Panetti v. Quarterman resulted in a slightly skewed interpretation of death sentence cases involving mental competency questions. The 2007 case discussed Scott Louis Panetti, a convicted murderer who suffered from delusions and believed that that his execution sentence was a government attempt to halt his religious agenda. Because medical professionals declared Panetti as aware of both his crime and the fact that he was to be executed, the District Court, relying on Ford, planned to carry forward the sentence. The Supreme Court agreed that the District Court’s interpretation of the precedent case was flawed and thus, the analysis in the planned execution led to an unsound legal standard. Despite the narrow win for Panetti, the Court set the tone that it would not “attempt to set down a rule governing all competency determinations”.

Taking precedent into account, the Court has established reason to follow its own footsteps regarding ruling in favor of Madison. During the Supreme Court oral arguments on October 2, the legal standards of Ford and Panetti were examined and applied by both the appellant and the appellee. Mr. Stevenson, on behalf of Madison, argued for the same interpretation of Ford that was expressed by Justice Thurgood Marshall in writing the majority opinion. Expressly, Mr. Stevenson channeled Justice Marshall’s words that executing the insane was “savage and inhumane” when he reiterated that the Court cannot “consistent with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, allow an execution of someone impaired in the way that Mr. Madison is.”

On the other hand, the State of Alabama’s primary argument involved an unfounded belief of Madison’s “rational understanding”, when, as Justice Sotomayor observed, Madison’s ability to understand he is being executed is not the same as rational understanding of committing the crime. The State also argued for a strict interpretation of “crime and punishment” based on the public and state-level need for retribution, also relying on Madison’s lack of remorse, despite the reasonable assumption that Madison’s cognitive defects and undeniable dementia have eliminated the possibility of remorse. If the Court were to base its decision on a yearning for vengeance against a mentally debilitated and physically disabled man, it would defy its majority opinion in Ford, which notes that these types of executions lack a retributive and deterrent effect.

The Slippery Slope

In accordance with the established law and the questions that arose from the case alone, the main question that the United States Supreme Court must answer is that of morality. The Eighth Amendment states, verbatim: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. The Court has previously failed in opportunities to exhibit morality in cases such as Korematsu v. United States despite the legal soundness in such holdings. Madison v. Alabama offers an opportunity to remind the lower courts and constitutionalists that “cruel and unusual” history through punishment cannot and should not repeat itself. If ignored, a lack of emphasis on the two short, yet vital words of the Eighth Amendment’s clause could lead American courts down a one-way rabbit hole to unjust executions based on flawed or “loose” rationale, as exemplified by Florida’s position in Panetti. The opportunity for the Court to remind itself of Justice Marshall’s monumental words about humanity—and the possible lack thereof—is omnipresent.

The opposite end of the “slippery slope” in Madison v. Alabama is the potential for exaggerated cases or cases in which a defendant is not significantly affected by dementia, but enough to claim a similar defense. Though Madison suffers adverse physical effects from randomized, severe strokes that coincide with his cognitive deficiency, the State of Alabama aptly addresses the concern that inmates facing execution could potentially create elaborate, or cause, physical and mental conditions in order to evade the severity of the punishment.

One possible compromise to the moral obligations of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishments” clause and the will to impose just punishment for fitting crimes is proposed by the American Psychological Association. Joined by the American Bar Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the compromise suggests that in a case involving dementia effects, “the sentence of death should be reduced to the sentence imposed in capital cases when execution is not an option”. The Supreme Court stated in Panetti that the expertise of cognitive or medical professionals and the likes thereof should be relied upon more heavily in future cases. To turn away from credible, established scientific professionals such as the American Psychological Association would not only defy the Court’s previously established wishes, but it would also allow for further complication and confusion in future cases involving uncertainty about an inmate’s mental state. The combined associations also hold that dementia is nearly parallel to “mental retardation”. Such equivalency further supports a ruling in favor of Madison because in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court established that persons with intellectual disabilities are exempt from the death penalty on the basis of “cruel and unusual punishment”.

Whether the Court decides to remain firm in its prevailing definition of “cruel and unusual” or loosen the interpretation, the outcome could constitute serious societal change while providing a glimpse into the nature of the Supreme Court’s future decisions post-Justice Anthony Kennedy. The absence of the retired liberal-leaning justice known for the ability to “swing” a decision within a case as complex as Madison will either serve as an omen to cling to moral interpretations of the Constitution or a reminder that a broadened scope could be necessary.