Competence to be Executed: The Vernon Madison Case

The Story:

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court halted Alabama’s execution of Vernon Madison in order to hear arguments that he is no longer competent to be executed due to several strokes and a failure of memory. Madison has been on death row for 30 years.

The Background:

In 2007, the Supreme Court, invoking the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishments, ruled that a prisoner cannot be executed unless he is mentally competent, that is, capable of understanding both what an execution means and why he has received that sentence.

This principle has since become a hotly contested part of the jurisprudence of capital punishment, and the Madison case is the latest one testing its boundaries.

The Thing to Know: 

Many mental health professionals believe that the legal principle at stake creates an impossible ethical bind: they are expected to treat a prisoner in Madison’s position so that he becomes healthy enough to be killed.


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