Often times lawbreakers enjoy arguing to justify a crime they committed by saying that they do not remember such a thing happening. In some cases, their argument is valid, but in most cases it is a pitiful excuse to stall punishment. This legal issue was raised in the Supreme Court case, Vernon Madison v. State of Alabama, where a man sits on Alabama’s death row after killing a police officer. The issue questions whether or not Vernon Madison’s eighth amendment right is being violated. To consult this matter, both parties and Judges from the circuit and trial courts used the Ford and Panetti standard to analyze this case.
The Ford and Panetti standard refers to two separate precedent cases that involved similar circumstances. To better understand the Ford and Panetti standard, it is important to understand the importance of the outcomes from both cases. In the Ford case decided in 1986, a Florida court sentenced Alvin Bernard Ford to death for first-degree murder. From the time of the murder, trial and sentencing phase, Ford was not suffering from any mental defects. After he was sentenced to death, his mental health deteriorated. After much litigation, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that English common law found executing the insane “savage and inhumane.” In the Panetti case, Scott Louis Panetti was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. In a psychiatric evaluation, it was found that Panetti was aware of his crime and because of that the district court found him sufficiently sane to be executed. The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the Fifth circuit’s analysis of Panetti’s mental condition was treated as irrelevant as long as he was somewhat aware of the state’s reasoning of putting him to death. The court also stated that the state unreasonably applied Ford by failing to give Panetti a fair chance to present his psychiatric evidence. With this, the court expressed that they hoped that future expert psychiatric evidence would magnify which delusions might distort an inmate’s sense of reality so much as to render him incompetent to be executed.
Initially, the state of Alabama ruled against Madison stating that the defendant did not make a threshold showing insanity. Meaning Madison failed to show that he is delusional. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed holding that when dementia is accepted as a relevant basis for incompetency, he’s clearly incompetent.
In oral argument, the petitioner argues before the Supreme Court that someone who has a disability that renders them inept to the time, place, or rationally understanding the circumstances of their offense, then they are incompetent; backed by proven medical records and accounts of past situations. They present to the court that the state was unwilling to consider any evidence about mental state that was outside of the scope of insanity, delusion, or psychosis. The petitioner wants the Supreme Court to affirm the U.S. Court of Appeal, while the respondent wants to carry out their death sentence arguing that Madison is aware and competent enough to be put to death.
The three Justices’ behavior that will be examined in order to predict if they will vote to affirm or reverse are Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Stephen Breyer.
With all the given information, Chief Justice Roberts will likely vote to affirm the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to reverse Madison’s death penalty based on a few reasons. It was interesting to observe Chief Justice Roberts’ behavior during oral arguments as he immediately disrupted the petitioner to try and grasp a firm understanding of what was being argued. In the very beginning of oral arguments, he had no problem admitting that he was having a tough time understanding what the issue was. This led him to constantly interrupting and questioning to clarify what the petitioner was trying say. Concurrently, other associate justices grilled the petitioner and eventually Chief Justice Roberts fell back and did not say anything else until it was time to hear the respondent’s argument. It is commonly understood by researchers that when a justice continues to interrupt someone that they are likely to vote against that side, and this was not the case in this occasion. Chief Justice Roberts showed less interest while Thomas R. Govan, on behalf of the respondent, argued the state’s side of the case. There was a point when the Chief Justice implied that he understood what the respondent was saying when Govan explained how an MRI can show mental illness, but not rational understanding. This implied that Roberts, for the most part, comprehended at least partially of the state’s argument. Towards the end Roberts seemed to agree with some of his fellow justices when they were questioning Govan. Since Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was considered at the court’s “swing voter” is gone, there has not been anyone to replace and acquire this title, but it looks like Roberts will vote liberal on this issue, because if not, the court may dead lock 4-4 resulting in Madison’s death. The matter does not involve the executive or congress, and for that matter, Roberts would deliberately make sure of it because according to an interview Roberts did a while back he said, “The justices speak for the constitution…while elected officials work for the people.” This comment implies that Roberts’ top priority is to serve justice according to the constitution. It also proves that he is deferential to precedent. He asked Govan, “So are all we arguing about whether Mr. Madison himself meets the Ford and Panetti standard?” He proved this when he effectively shortened Madison down to a simple application of precedent. The Ford and Panetti standard says that incompetent people cannot be executed. According to his behavior, it appears that his behavior is predominately motivated by legal principles much like legal model, because in this case, if he were motivated by anything else his vote would likely be conservative.
On the other hand, Justice Samuel Alito made it very clear that he will vote to reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals, allowing Madison to be put to death. While other liberal justices focused on the issue of Madison’s general state of competency, Justice Alito focused on one aspect that was irrelevant to most justices which was the amnesia issue mentioned during oral arguments. His questioning focused on a very narrow topic and seemed as if he was misunderstanding Stephenson’s argument on behalf of the petitioner throughout his entire open arguments. Justice Alito said, “I don’t understand you’re answer. I can’t think of a situation in which a person would lack memory of the commission of the offense without that being based on a mental condition.” This comment very well represents Justice Alito’s misunderstanding of the petitioner’s point. It was evident that Justice Alito’s focus was off when other liberals would interrupt by stringing the focus back to what was actually being argued; Since medical records prove that Madison is not able to understand the things around him due to dementia, he is incompetent to be executed. They would not allow Alito to relabel the case as one about amnesia rather than insanity.
Justice Alito’s support to execute Madison comes by no surprise considering his notorious history of urging such behavior. In Glossip v. Gross, an earlier case involving the issue of whether a particular drug that Oklahoma wants to use in executions adequately reduces inmates pain that the intense suffering caused does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the court and had an unsympathetic choice of words when doing so. He included, “…because it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional, it necessarily follows that there must be a constitutional means of carrying it out…we have held that the constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain.” This shows that Justice Alito has been in favor of capital punishment before and based on these comments, there would have to be convincingly enough evidence to sway him the other way. Going into Madison’s case, Justice Alito appears to have had a preconception based on precedent cases before this one. With this, it would be extremely hard to convince him that Madison ought to not be put to death regardless of his vascular dementia that is deteriorating his memory. This elutes to the belief that his voting behavior is motivated solely by his partisanship under the attitudinal model that posits a justice will pursue their sincere preferences.
Justice Stephen Breyer will vote to affirm the U.S. Court of Appeals, which will save Madison’s life. Justice Breyer has a history in dissenting in conservative ruled cases involving the 8th amendment and death penalty cases. Just like Justice Alito, Breyer voted in the Glossip v. Gross cases, but instead, he was one of which who voted against and dissented. This prior voting history gave insight as to how Breyer would look at Madison’s case. Breyer interrupted Govan many times which indicated that he was not agreeing with much of Govan’s argument. He especially did not agree with the Govan’s point that he believed Madison’s real claim was that dementia should exempt him from execution. He cut Govan off at one point and said, “He does not recall his crime…and he has a severe inability to orient himself to time and place…” He was insinuating that Madison would of course not be able to be saved under just the claim of amnesia, but under Ford and Panetti, he should be let off the hook since this standard says that incompetent people can not be executed. Although it is hard to say, Justice Breyer will most likely vote based on the attitudinal model, because in oral arguments he was more concerned with Madison’s condition rather than precedent.
Out of these 3 justices, Roberts seems to be the essential vote that may swing the outcome either way. If he decides to vote liberal to save Madison’s life, the decision will likely be 5-3 with of course conservatives dissenting including Justice Alito.