The death penalty is one of the largest sources of litigation and Supreme Court examination in criminal law. The Eighth Amendment has a strict prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For now, it is legal, although many states no longer allow the death penalty to be administered.
There are multiple limits on when the death penalty can be used: it cannot be used on the insane, on juveniles, or on those who are mentally incapable of understanding. When it comes to mental disability, the Supreme Court recently clarified the issue further in the case of Vernon Madison.
Madison is convicted of murdering an Alabama police officer in 1985. He was sentenced to death, and has spent over three decades in solitary confinement in Alabama. During this time, he suffered multiple strokes and has vascular dementia. He currently has no memory of the crime he has been convicted of. He is blind and incontinent, and when he speaks, it does not always make sense.
He has stated he plans to move to Florida, and can only recite the alphabet up to the letter G. In its ruling, the court determined that execution would still be permissible over someone who has no recollection of their crimes. That is because they would still be able to rationally understand why the State seeks their execution, and so the Eighth Amendment is not a bar to the death penalty.
But, Justice Kagan writing for the majority clarified that if the loss of memory combines with other mental shortfalls to the extent that it deprives that person of the ability to understand why the State is using the death penalty, then that would render the execution as unconstitutional.
The prisoner must be able to rationally understand the reason for the death sentence. She likened it to someone who cannot remember their first day of school, but being told that they were sent home because they struck another student. Even if they cannot remember the actual act of violence, they would be able to understand why they would have been punished for such conduct.
The Court recognized the various minutiae involved where a defendant is diagnosed with dementia. The diagnosis alone is not enough to trigger a bar under the Eighth Amendment, especially when that person has a milder form of dementia.
It is only when the person is unable to rationally understand the reason for their execution that the Eighth Amendment would prohibit it. The court stated that this would not only offend humanity, but it also serves no retributive value to execute someone who has no understanding of the judgment issued by their community.
This case appears to both affirm and extend the ruling somewhat from Panetti v. Quarterman, where the Supreme Court determined that criminal defendants who have been sentenced to death cannot be executed if they cannot understand the reason for their execution. Once an execution date is set, then states must allow death-row inmates to litigate their own competency in a habeas corpus proceeding.