May 28, 2024

If you cannot remember a crime, should you be executed for it?

A prisoner on death row in Alabama may not remember a murder he committed in 1985

On April 18, 1985 Vernon Madison shot an Alabama police office in the back of the head at point blank range. He was tried three times for the crime and sentenced to death in 1994. He has been living on death row ever since. He is now 68 years old.

There is no doubt that he committed the crime. But his defence lawyers contend that after suffering two strokes in 2015 and 2016 he cannot remember it. Should he be executed?

His case has come before the US Supreme Court.

The Alabama Attorney General's office questions whether his amnesia is genuine and argues that Madison’s execution “will serve as an example to others that the intentional murder of a police officer will be punished”. It also contends that a prisoner with amnesia “is no less subject to deterrence than an inmate who remembers the crime that put him in prison.” 

“A failure to recall committing a crime is distinct from a failure to understand why one is being punished for a crime. An inmate’s personal recollection of the crime is irrelevant to whether the inmate shares the community’s understanding of the crime, has a moral responsibility for committing the crime, or understands why he is being punished for the crime.”

The Equal Justice Initiative, which is defending Madison, says that his health puts him “into the category of prisoners for whom an execution would serve no retributive or deterrent purpose.” They claim that the strokes have left Madison blind, with “vascular dementia, cognitive deficits, severe memory loss, and brain damage.” He has difficulty moving and speaking.

“He frequently urinates on himself and complains that no one will let him out to use the bathroom when there is a toilet inches away from his bed,” EJI wrote in a brief for the court. “His memory is so impaired that he can no longer recite the alphabet or do a simple math problem. He is unable to remember that his mother and brother are deceased and cannot identify the prison warden or officers who have been guarding him for years.”

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