The United States of America is currently the only Western country to continue to permit the death penalty in this day and age. 137 countries have abolished the death penalty. 31 out of 50 American states use the death penalty, as long as the government may allow. The death penalty may have been the most elusively controversial topic over the last 40 years. At least since 1980. It is an incredibly polarizing topic, because those that have an opinion on it are never those in the middle – either the death penalty is the highest form of punishment that is fair in this country, or it is barbaric to bestow capital punishment on those who have committed serious crimes.
Many citizens believe that the death penalty is a fitting sentence for certain crimes. It has been argued that, should one commit murder, the only fair punishment would be for the offender themselves to die. This alludes to the ancient code of law set forth by Hammurabi – an eye for an eye, a murder for a murder. The death penalty can also be beneficial to society, by taking a murderer off the streets, and sending a message to other would-be criminals. It can act as a deterrent, and reduce the rate of homicide (“Should”). Capital punishment can also serve as a method of gaining closure for the families of the victims. Much of the people affected by the death-row inmates crimes would never be able to see that their loved one is resting in peace until the murderer is dead as well.
On the other hand, many organizations – and individuals – are against the death penalty, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. This organization believes that capital punishment inherently renounces the 8th amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as violates the 14th amendment right to due process (“The Case”).They believe that the state should not have the power to kill human beings, whether innocent or guilty, especially when many of the executions can be proven to have discriminatory motives, and have arbitrary reasoning. It is argued that the death penalty is a waste of taxpayer funds, and does nothing to combat public safety – if anything, studies have shown that the states in which the death penalty is in place and active, the rates of homicide are significantly higher. Another argument is that innocent people are put to death far more often than guilty, and often this is the result of systemic racism, classism, and discrimination based on geography (ACLU).
The year of 1974 brought along the case of Ford v Wainwright, who’s verdict is a crucial component in the investigation on Madison v Alabama. Alvin Ford was sentenced to death for the first degree murder in the Florida state court. While on death row, Ford’s mental health deteriorated to the point of recognizable schizophrenia, as well as severe paranoia. It is said that Ford referred to himself as John Paul III, and claimed that he was “free to go wherever he wanted” due to a supposition that anyone who attempted to execute him would, in turn, be executed. There was no previous evidence that Ford was mentally unstable or ill. His condition only worsened within his time on death row. Ford was tested by psychiatrists and ruled to be sane enough to comprehend the death penalty, and the effect it would eventually have on him (“Ford”).
Ford filed for an appeal on the grounds that he is now insane, and that it is unconstitutional to execute him, as set forth by the eighth amendment. The eighth amendment, through the Cruel And Unusual Punishments Clause, does permit the death penalty. The case itself was based on the question: Does the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit the imposition of the death penalty upon the insane? (“Ford”). In 1791, when the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause was approved, the death penalty was legal, and it was mentioned in explicit terms in the constitution (Stinneford). This means that Ford’s punishment was entirely legal, as he was mentally stable when first accused and charged. The eighth amendment does not consider the mental state of the accused as a factor in deciding whether the punishment is fair or not. The court, which leaned towards the right in 1986, found and ruled in a 7-2 decision that Ford was indeed sane, and that the eighth amendment does, in fact, bar those that are insane from receiving capital punishment.
Panetti v Quarterman is a decision by the U.S. Supreme Ccourt that rules as follows: should the criminal defendant charged with capital punishment “not understand” the reason for their execution, and the court has already set a date for said execution, the defendant can sue, or litigate, their capacity to be executed through Habeas Corpus proceedings (“Panetti”). Scott Panetti was charged with the capital murder of both of his parent in-laws in 1992. Eventually, Panetti appealed, requesting habeas corpus, claiming a mental illness.
In trying to be consistent with the rulings in Ford v. Wainwright, Panetti v. Quarterman and the eighth amendment, Alabama may have crossed the constitutional line on the punishment of Vernon Madison. In 1985, Madison was arrested and charged with the murder of police officer Julius Schulte. Three different trials were held, and while the first two convictions were overturned, the third and final trial was when Madison received the verdict of capital punishment (Devendorf). Madison’s execution date was set for May 2018, but for various reasons, it got delayed to January 2018, which was when the attorneys for Madison appealed to the court, claiming that Madison was mentally unstable and therefore not competent to be executed. The appeal was denied, but the Supreme Court ordered a postponing of the execution until they could rule on the case (Ballotpedia).