Supreme Court Extends Eighth Amendment Protections to Prisoners with Dementia

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The United States Supreme Court today ruled in favor of EJI client Vernon Madison, a 68-year-old man suffering from severe vascular dementia following multiple life-threatening strokes. The Court held that Mr. Madison, who is legally blind, incontinent, cannot walk without a walker, speaks with slurred speech, and has no memory of the crime or the circumstances that brought him to death row, is entitled to an assessment that recognizes that dementia and other mental conditions are covered by the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 5-3 decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court explained that the Eighth Amendment bars executing a person whose mental disorder makes him unable to reach a rational understanding of the reason for his execution.

The critical question is whether a “prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness” that he lacks a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [his] execution.”  Or similarly put, the issue is whether a “prisoner’s concept of reality” is “so impair[ed]” that he cannot grasp the execution’s “meaning and purpose” or the “link between [his] crime and its punishment.”

The Court reasoned that the standard “focuses on whether a mental disorder has had a particular effect: an inability to rationally understand why the State is seeking execution.” The standard does not require “establishing any precise cause: Psychosis or dementia, delusions or overall cognitive decline are all the same under Panetti, so long as they produce the requisite lack of comprehension.”

The Court returned the case to the state court for renewed consideration of whether Mr. Madison is competent under the Eighth Amendment. It barred the state court from relying on arguments or evidence tainted by legal error, including portions of the experts’ reports and testimony that “expressly reflect[] an incorrect view of the relevance of delusions or memory” as well as other evidence that “might have implicitly rested on those same misjudgments.”

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