Editor's Picks

I can’t remember killing him: Vernon Madison’s story

The United States Supreme Court has all but sealed the fate of an Alabama death row inmate who has been imprisoned for the past 30 years.

Image: Kelsey Stein / AL.com, (Courtesy of Google Images)

You’re on death row awaiting execution. You’ve been fighting your death sentence since 1987 when you were first convicted of first–degree murder; however, something happens in May 2015. You suffer a crippling mental injury and are resigned to the prison hospital where you must recover while still awaiting your death. After making some minor recovery, you suffer another debilitating mental injury seven months later. Your execution date is set for Thursday, May 12, 2016.

As the date draws near, doctors and psychiatrists begin to ask if you understand what is about to happen and you reply in the affirmative, but only because family members and others are informing you about the process itself. They ask why you ended up on death row, but because of your mental infirmities you can’t remember what you did. Should you still be subject to lethal injection despite your inability to recall what occurred all those years ago? This was the question presented to the Supreme Court of the United States via certiorari review in the case of Dunn v. Madison.

Juvenile Officer Julius Schulte was dispatched to investigate a missing child complaint on the afternoon of April 18, 1985 in Mobile, Alabama. When Officer Schulte arrived, he found the child had returned home, but the child’s mother and father were in an altercation. Vernon Madison, the father, was upset with the woman because she had called the police. The woman’s friends asked the officer to remain on the scene while the woman packed her belongings to leave for a few days because of her fear of Madison.

As the woman packed, Madison only became angrier that the police remained. He was eventually told by the police to “just go on and let things cool down,” to which he responded, “O.K., I’m gone,” and left. Madison would go on to retrieve a pistol from another area and circle back to the residence. He approached the police car from the rear and fired two shots into the back of Officer Schulte’s head. Officer Schulte would ultimately die from the injuries he sustained that afternoon.

Madison was indicted on two counts of first–degree murder for the killing, and his trial was set for September 1985. Madison raised defenses of insanity and lack of knowledge that Officer Schulte was a police officer on duty. Alabama law deemed murdering a police officer in the line of duty a capital offense. A capital offense is one in which “a defendant shall be punished by a sentence of death or life imprisonment without parole.” At the time, language in the statute allowed for the argument that if the defendant was unaware the officer was on duty at the time of the killing, it was not a capital offense. The language has since been amended to remove the requirement that the defendant knows the officer to be on duty.

Madison was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death in an 11–to–1 vote during the sentencing phase.

During the jury selection process at Madison’s trial, the prosecuting attorney used his peremptory jury strikes to excuse seven potential black jurors until the jury was majority, if not completely, white. Madison, a black man, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death in an 11–to–1 vote during the sentencing phase; however, Madison appealed his conviction based on a what is known as a Batson challenge. This particular challenge is born from the case Batson v. Kentucky, which restricts attorneys from using their peremptory strikes during jury selection to strike potential jurors for discriminatory reasons.

The Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) granted Madison’s appeal and required the trial court to hold a hearing in which the prosecuting attorney was required to give non-discriminatory reasons for striking the seven jurors. The trial court found the prosecutor’s striking of the potential jurors was done without racial discrimination. As a result, Madison was denied a new trial. The Alabama CCA reversed this decision and ordered that Madison be tried again with a new jury.

At his second trial in September 1990, Madison was again found guilty of capital murder. In a 10–to–2 vote by the jury, he was recommended the death penalty. Madison appealed his second conviction on the grounds that he was found guilty with the use of inadmissible expert testimony. To refute this defense, the State of Alabama presented testimony of two psychologists. Most important to Madison’s appeal was refuting the testimony of Dr. Harry Albert McClaren.

Madison argued that Dr. McClaren should not have been permitted to give his opinion of Madison’s mental state at the time of the offense because he based his opinion on evidence that was not offered or admitted at trial. The Alabama CCA reasoned that Dr. McLaren relied on information from Madison’s ex-wife, his girlfriend, the arresting officer, the chief jailer, and a host of other documents and recordings that were not admitted into evidence. Because of this, the “fairness [and] integrity of the proceedings” were “seriously affected.” Madison’s second conviction was struck down and he had to be tried a third time.

Following his third trial, Madison was again convicted of Officer Schulte’s murder, but this time the jury recommended a different fate. 8 of the jurors recommended he be sentenced to life without parole, while 4 voted for death by electrocution. During sentencing, the presiding judge held a separate hearing in which he considered aggravating and mitigating circumstances, alongside the jury’s recommendation. The judge “overrode” the jury’s recommendation, and sentenced Madison to death by electrocution.

Interestingly, in April of 2017, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill into law that restricted judges from overriding jury recommendations, giving juries the “final say” in death penalty cases. Notably, Alabama was the last state to pass this restriction, but even more remarkably, Alabama is still the only state that allows a non–unanimous recommendation for a death sentence as long as the jury votes at least 10–to–2 in favor of death. It stands to wonder if cases like Madison’s should be retroactively affected given this change in the law, but as it stands no reprieves have been given.

Madison’s brain eventually became so damaged that he lost all recollection of Officer Schulte’s murder in 1985.

Madison appealed his third conviction to the Alabama Supreme Court, but his fate was sealed by the court’s affirmation of the Alabama CCA’s denial for relief in June 1998. Madison, now in his mid–60s, suffered two known mental injuries during his imprisonment that would potentially change the course of his death sentence. In May of 2015 and January of 2016, Madison suffered two strokes. It is also suggested he suffered previous strokes before these dates. Additionally, he was diagnosed with major vascular neurological disorders, vascular dementia, and other medical conditions which he alleged damaged his brain, leaving him with diminished mental capacity, severe memory deficits, and other problems related to cognitive function. Madison’s brain eventually became so damaged that he lost all recollection of Officer Schulte’s murder back in 1985.

After realizing the full extent of Madison’s brain injuries, Madison’s attorney filed a petition to the district court arguing that because Madison did not have “an independent recollection of his offense and [did] not have a rational understanding of why the State [sought] to execute him,” his execution would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In finding against Madison, the district court determined the trial court had not been unreasonable in finding that Madison had a rational understanding of his situation.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reviewed this decision and reversed the district court’s conclusion on March 15, 2017. The Eleventh Circuit noted that Madison has “a serious mental condition” and “both experts agreed there was no indication that Mr. Madison was malingering,” meaning his inability to remember the murder itself remains undisputed. The Eleventh Circuit also determined that Madison needed to rationally understand “that he [was] going to be executed because of the murder he committed.” They criticized the doctors’ findings in that they provided extensive evidence as to Madison’s ability to distinguish between a life and a death sentence, but not the connection that the death sentence was a direct result of the murder in 1985.

On November 6, 2017, however, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a crushing blow to Madison and his supporters.

The Eleventh Circuit also reasoned the state unreasonably applied the law because the trial court failed to “consider the impact of Mr. Madison’s memory loss or his belief that he never killed anyone on his ability to make the required connection between his crime and his execution.” The practical effect of the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal meant that Madison was incompetent to be executed by the state of Alabama. After being on–and–off death row for more than 30 years, 3 retrials, multiple appeals, and a series of medical crises, Madison, with the help of his legal team, was going to live. On November 6, 2017, however, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a crushing blow to Madison and his supporters.

In an 8–page per curiam opinion filed on November 6, the Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s decision. The Court noted that the retributive purpose of capital punishment is not “well served where ‘the prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community.’” The Court went on to note, however, that “notwithstanding his memory loss—[Madison] recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.” From this analysis, it appears that literal memory of the event is irrelevant. By reversing the Eleventh Circuit, the Supreme Court has paved the way for Madison’s ultimate execution; however, because of various challenges that can be made under the Eighth Amendment through Supreme Court precedent, Madison may still have some time.

In 1987, the average time between imprisonment and death was a little over 7 years. Now, in 2017, a death row inmate may spend an average of over 19 years awaiting his death sentence.

Justice Breyer concurred in the decision, but wrote separately to address how Madison’s case highlights the underlying issue of the administration of the death penalty. In 1987, the average time between imprisonment and death was a little over 7 years. Now, in 2017, a death row inmate may spend an average of over 19 years awaiting his death sentence. Justice Breyer cautioned that given this growing trend of postponing executions, more instances of executing aged prisoners with severe diseases like Madison will occur. Granted, inmates can somewhat control the length of time before their execution by utilizing the appeals they are afforded, but the fact remains that there is a growing problem with the death penalty system.

Justice Breyer closed the opinion by stating that instead of looking at the special circumstances of aged prisoners on death row, a more apt thing to do would be to look at the “constitutionality of the death penalty itself.” As this year reaches its end, it is not definite if Vernon Madison’s life will reach its end as well. Now 67 and severely handicapped from his mental afflictions, Madison finds himself in a cell, continuing to await a death sentence handed down to him 30 years ago. He can still appeal his case further, but it appears more likely Vernon Madison will find himself taking his last breaths in prison, wondering exactly what happened that afternoon on April 18, 1985.

Tommy Harvey III
About Tommy Harvey III (15 Articles)
Tommy Harvey III is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Atlanta, GA and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Miami. Tommy has worked for the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of North Carolina and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, NC. His legal interests include Civil Rights Law, Constitutional Law, and International Law. Tommy is a member of the Campbell Law Trial Team, and serves as a peer mentor as well as the current Vice President and past Treasurer for the Campbell Law Black Law Students Association.