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Death Penalty and Mental Illness

Should Someone be Executed if they Don't Remember the Crime?

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CIVICS: Setting precedents is a crucial job of the U.S. Supreme Court because it helps them in determining rulings for future cases they receive. 

  • (1) Does the 8th Amendment prohibit a state from executing a prisoner whose mental disability leaves him with no memory of the crime or ruling of capital punishment?
  • (2) Does the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment prevent the state from executing a prisoner who suffers from severe mental health issues or cognitive dysfunction?

SOCIAL: This case, Madison v. Alabama, asks the question of whether not a man should die for a crime they do not remember doing, whose answer will set precedents for cases involving people with debilitating mental illness.


Cruel and Unjust

Madison’s attorney Bryan Stevenson asserted that executing Madison in his mentally ill state infringes on his 8th Amendment protections. [The Atlantic]


The 8th Amendment protects from “cruel and unusual punishment.” [National Constitution Center]



Defending dementia

Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan agrees that if an individual with dementia cannot understand why they committed the crime, then they cannot be executed. [The Associated Press]



A reexamination

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan expressed the issue of the Alabama courts not correctly determining Madison’s mental state. 


If true, his sentencing would fall under unjust punishment. [The Wall Street Journal]


Finding differences

Defining terms in law is critical to sentencing. There are various definitions on the terms demented, mentally ill, or just forgetful.


The Alabama courts argued that Madison's memory loss did not qualify under mental illness. [The Guardian]




Alabama courts asserted that Madison knew he was being punished for a crime he committed, thus making memory loss, not a substantial enough reason to avoid execution. [The Guardian



“A mockery of our rules”

Three Supreme Court Justices wrote in their statement that the legal process this case took to reach the Supreme Court illustrates a “mockery of our rules,” saying that the question of whether or not a prisoner on death row should be executed if they cannot recall the committing the crime was never agreed by the Supreme Court to analyze. [Legal Information Institute]


  • Feb. 2019: The Supreme Court ruled a 5-3 decision that the state could not execute Madison if he does not remember why he committed the crime. [NPR]

  • Precedent: The result of this case sets the precedent that the state courts must evaluate the mental state of a convicted individual faced with the death penalty. 

  • Alabama Attorney General, Steve Marshall, believes the state will keep Madison on death row. [Associated Press]


  • Should the same type of question be asked for different types of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia? 

  • In what other situations should the eighth amendment be applied in court cases?

  • Read the detailed statements of the court’s statements here and here.

  • Would the outcome of the case have been different if Madison’s attorney made him plead insanity?

Key Vocabulary