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Last week, the Eleventh Circuit decided the case of Vernon Madison—a man whose execution the court had stayed hours before it was set to take place last May in order to deal with urgent questions pertaining to his competency. The court determined that Mr. Madison is not competent to be executed. The opinion spares the State the indignity of killing someone who is “66 years old . . . legally blind, [unable to] walk independently, is incontinent, and has slurred speech. . . . [and has] also suffered at least two recent strokes.” Importantly, it was the federal court, not the State’s prosecutors, who put the brakes on this grotesque effort to execute Mr. Madison. We covered the Madison case around the time of his scheduled execution, taking stock of how two previous death verdicts in his case were thrown out due to prosecutorial race discrimination in jury selection and the introduction of improper witness testimony.

Contrary to the protestations of Mobile County prosecutors that it was “a flaw in the judicial system” that led to this latest development, prosecutorial misconduct is a central reason that it has taken many years for the case to be resolved. Indeed, the prosecution epitomized misconduct in all three of Madison’s trials, not just the first two, and still the final jury recommended that Madison receive a life sentence rather than capital punishment by a vote of 8-4. Yet, “[u]nfazed, [the notorious] Judge McRae overrode its decision and imposed the death sentence . . . .” The 11th Circuit’s decision protecting Mr. Madison from a lethal injection reaffirms the conclusion to our previous piece: “Prosecutorial misconduct has left yet another deep imprint in Alabama’s death penalty.”

The legal question posed to the 11th Circuit was whether Mr. Madison was competent to be executed. Under the Eighth Amendment, a defendant is considered competent if he rationally understands that he is going to be executed and comprehends the reason why he confronts that fate. If he is unable to do either of these things, the Supreme Court has held that it is cruel and unusual to follow through with an execution. Mr. Madison’s defense attorneys produced compelling evidence that their client is incompetent, and the State had no answer. Nevertheless, prosecutors pressed forward to secure an execution.

The court explains:

At the hearing, Mr. Madison presented unrebutted testimony from Dr. John Goff that his strokes caused major vascular disorder (also known as vascular dementia) and related memory impairments and that, as a result, he has no memory of committing the murder—the very act that is the reason for his execution. To the contrary, Mr. Madison does not believe he ever killed anyone. Dr. Goff testified that due to his memory impairments, Mr. Madison does not have a rational understanding of why the state is seeking to execute him.”

In a sentence: Mr. Madison’s recent strokes so severely impaired his brain functioning that he does not remember or understand that he killed somebody.

Surely in the face of this powerful evidence the State must have undermined the credibility of the defense expert and produced a credible witness of its own to justify pushing for Madison’s execution? On the contrary, the majority explained that the State’s expert, Dr. Karl Kirkland, gave testimony that was simply “not relevant to the competency inquiry called for by the Supreme Court.” To challenge Dr. Goff’s conclusion that Mr. Madison’s memory failure undermines his understanding of why the State is trying to execute him, Dr. Kirkland testified that Mr. Madison was able to comprehend the difference between a life sentence and a death sentence. Unsurprisingly, the 11th Circuit was not moved by this: “Mr. Madison’s ability to distinguish between a death sentence and a life sentence does not show—or even suggest—that he understands that his death sentence means he will be put to death because of the crime he committed.”

From a legal perspective, it is somewhat remarkable that the 11th Circuit granted Mr. Madison relief. After all, federal law embeds seemingly endless deference to state courts’ decisions, and the trial court here somehow sided with the prosecutor. (Though the trial court’s decision is less surprising when one considers the history of Mr. Madison’s own case, in which the trial court that three times sentenced the defendant to death glossed over the prosecutor’s racial discrimination and actually asked the prosecutor to draft the order upholding the State’s position at one critical juncture.) That the 11th Circuit intervened signals that something was wrong with the proceedings and decision-making process below.

Underneath debates about deference and the legal standards, however, resides a very simple question: why did the State insist on pursuing Mr. Madison’s execution? The defense’s expert was compelling, and the State did not rebut his evidence. The answer lies in the prosecutors’ own sentiment, expressed in this piece of anemic local reporting, that Madison should die no matter what he knows or comprehends because they are frustrated with how long his appeals have taken. This case and its extraordinary history of prosecutorial misconduct give a resounding answer about what happens when the public entrusts prosecutors to seek the ultimate punishment without restraint. Following three trials and multiple examples of unethical behavior, these prosecutors sought the death of a crippled man with no memories of ever committing a crime.  Once again, the desire to win at all costs prevailed in their calculations. Fortunately, the judiciary reined in their ruthlessness.

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