WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A month after halting his execution, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up the case of an Alabama convicted murderer whose attorneys argue should be spared the death penalty because strokes have wiped out his memory of committing the crime.
The justices agreed to decide whether executing 67-year-old Vernon Madison, convicted of fatally shooting a police officer in 1985, would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court has previously imposed some limits on capital punishment relating to people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.
Madison, who has spent decades on death row, has suffered several strokes in recent years, resulting in dementia and memory impairment, court papers said. He is legally blind, cannot walk on his own and speaks with a slur.
Alabama had previously appealed to the Supreme Court a federal appeals court ruling last year that Madison could not be put to death because his memory loss had left him unable to understand the connection between his crime and the punishment he is due to receive.
Last November, the justices ruled unanimously that Alabama could execute Madison, saying that Supreme Court precedent had not established “that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime.”
The case prompted liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a death penalty critic, to write in a separate opinion that Madison’s case illustrated “the unconscionably long periods of time that prisoners often spend on death row awaiting execution.”
But on Jan. 25, the high court halted Madison’s execution as it considered a request by his attorneys to reconsider the case.
His lawyers said that the state had failed to disclose that a court-appointed psychologist who evaluated Madison had a substance abuse problem and had been suspended from his practice for forging prescriptions, making his findings invalid.
They urged the justices to take the case to clarify whether the Constitution allows someone with dementia and cognitive decline to be executed.
Madison shot Julius Schulte, a police officer in Mobile, twice in the back of the head as Schulte supervised Madison’s move out of his former girlfriend’s house, according to court papers.
Madison, who is black, was sentenced to death in 1994 in his third trial after his first two convictions were thrown out on appeal for racial discrimination in jury selection and other prosecutorial misconduct.
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham
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