Reassessing the Eighth Amendment: Punishment for a Forgotten Crime


On April 18, 1985, Vernon Madison shot and killed Juvenile Officer Julius Schulte of the Mobile Police Department. In response to this murder, the trial court unanimously convicted Madison of capital murder and sentenced him to death. However, as Madison’s execution date approached, originally set for May 12, 2016, he petitioned the court for a suspension of his execution. During the thirty years that had passed since Madison’s conviction, he had suffered from multiple debilitating mental injuries including several recent strokes. He petitioned the court, asking that his death sentence be suspended due to these mental injuries. Since then, Madison’s case has become widely influential and also controversial, as it seeks to challenge our current understanding of the Eighth Amendment. Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States are still in the process of adjudicating the life-or-death sentence in Madison v. Alabama and are finding great difficulty in assessing whether or not Madison’s execution should be annulled under the Eighth Amendment. However, through the legal precedent set forth in the “Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause” of the Eighth Amendment and in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), it can be argued that Madison should not receive the death penalty.

The underlying premise behind the Eighth Amendment is that: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”[1] The original intention behind the amendment was to ensure that the federal government did not impose unduly harsh punishments on convicted felons; however, this original intention has allowed for various conflicting legal interpretations in the modern era. Despite the simplicity of the Eighth Amendment’s language, over recent years, there has been a substantial amount of controversy regarding if the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment upholds or negates the death penalty. The case of Vernon Madison has called into question the ethicality and legality of sentencing an individual who has no recollection of the crime they committed. However, as Justice Stephen Breyer stated in Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), “I’m not a moralist. I’m a judge. As a judge, I look at the law.”[2]

Key legal precedent for Madison v. Alabama is established in Ford v. Wainwright[3] and Panetti v. Quarterman[4]: two cases which mirror Vernon Madison’s current set of circumstances. The facts from these cases that are particularly worth noting are: (1) Ford v. Wainwright (1986), which found it unconstitutional that the death penalty be imposed on the insane, and (2) Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), which asserted that an inmate who lacks a rational understanding of the State’s conviction could not be executed.

In Ford v. Wainwright, Alvin Bernard Ford was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Ford was fully competent throughout his trial and sentencing, but shortly thereafter exhibited signs of mental disorder. The Supreme Court reassessed his case to determine if there was any retributive value in capital punishment for a mentally unstable felon. While no case had previously challenged the countenance of capital punishment for the insane, Justice Marshall, alongside four other justices, found that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane.”[5] The Court provided several reasons for their adjudication. The first was that any defendant who came to be of unsound mind before his punishment, should have his execution stayed because, had he been of sound mind, “he might have alleged something in stay of judgement or execution”. Additionally, the Court found that execution has no retributive value when the convict “has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life” and instead the punishment serves as an offense to humanity.

Considering the vast similarities that exist between Ford v. Wainwright and Madison v. Alabama, it can be assumed that the adjudications of the two cases might maintain similarities. Ford v. Wainwright does prohibit the State from carrying out a death sentence if the defendant is insane, regardless of the convict’s earlier competency, which is Madison’s claim. The difficulty for Madison comes in proving that he is insane under the Court’s standards set forth in the more recent case of Panetti v. Quarterman.

In 1992, Scott Louis Panetti was convicted of murdering his wife’s parents and was sentenced to death. Panetti responded to his conviction by petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus, in which his defense insisted that because he was mentally ill, executing him would be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. After countless assessments and disputes, the Court found, in a 5-4 decision, that Panetti was right. The Court explicitly mentioned that “[a]lthough we reject the standard followed by the Court of Appeals, we do not attempt to set down a rule governing all competency determinations.”[6] Instead, the Court maintained that it was the responsibility of expert psychiatric evidence to prove the insanity, or sanity, of an individual. But what the Court did make clear was that if psychiatric evidence showed that an individual did not understand the reason for their execution, they could not be executed.

Utilizing Madison v. Alabama as precedence, we can further understand the potential unconstitutionality of Madison’s execution. Psychologist Dr. John Goff has already reported that Madison’s strokes have “rendered him unable to remember numerous events that have occurred over the past thirty years or more.”[7] Within this timeframe, he has no recollection of is the night he murdered Officer Schulte. While he understands that he murdered an officer and this offense is the cause of his imprisonment, he is unable to to recall “the sequence of events from the offense to the arrest to the trial.” Given all this, there is no possibility for Madison to completely understand his actions and how/why he is being punished for them. As was previously discussed in Ford v. Wainwright case, an individual that does not understand the reason for his or her execution cannot and should not be executed.

However, there is a grey line between Panetti’s and Madison’s case. The Court has never faced a case in which the felon cannot remember his crime. This additional information should provide even more of a reason to stay Madison’s execution, but the Court insists on having additional evidence that points to the convict’s inability to understand the rationale behind his execution. As such, psychologists continue to assess Madison’s level of sanity.

As such, while the precedence set under Ford v. Wainwright deemed unconstitutional the execution of an insane person, Panetti v. Quarterman clarifies and develops what the Court considers to constitute insanity. The precedent set forth under both cases provides convincing evidence on how the Court is likely to rule if Madison’s attorney is able to prove that Madison’s mental instability is preventing him from fully comprehending the reason for his execution. Psychologists have already found this to be true; it is now only a matter of effectively relaying this information to the Court.

[1] Stevenson, Bryan A., John F. Stinneford. “The 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” National Constitution Center, <https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-viii>.

[2] "Kennedy v. Louisiana." Oyez. Accessed April 20, 2018. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2007/07-343.

[3] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (U.S. Supreme Court, 1986).

[4] Panetti v. Quarterm, 551 U.S. 930 (U.S. Supreme Court, 2007).

[5] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (U.S. Supreme Court, 1986).

[6] Panetti v. Quarterm, 551 U.S. 930 (U.S. Supreme Court, 2007).

[7] Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S. ___ (U.S. Supreme Court, 2017).