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Dementia and the Death Penalty

Abstract: During its 2018-2019 term, the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of executing a prisoner with dementia. In Madison v. Alabama, the Court ruled that, in certain circumstances, executing a prisoner with dementia violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985. After many years on Alabama’s death row, he had a series of strokes and was diagnosed with vascular dementia. In 2016, Madison’s lawyers unsuccessfully sought a stay of execution, arguing that, in light of his cognitive impairments, imposing the death penalty would violate the Constitution. After Alabama set a 2018 execution date, lawyers returned to the state court, arguing that the finding of competence should be reversed because Madison’s cognitive impairments had worsened. When the trial court refused to grant the stay of execution, Madison’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the state court decision.

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