A federal appeals court delayed the execution of an Alabama inmate on Thursday in order to review lawyers' claims that it would be unconstitutional to execute him because he is no longer competent because of strokes and dementia.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the stay about seven hours before Vernon Madison, 65, was scheduled to die by lethal injection at a state prison in Atmore. The appellate court said it will hear oral arguments in Madison's case in June.
Madison was convicted in the 1985 killing of Mobile police Officer Julius Schulte. Schulte had responded to a domestic call involving Madison. Prosecutors said Madison crept up and shot Schulte in the back of the head as he sat in his police car.
Attorneys for the Equal Justice Initiative, which sought the emergency stay, say that strokes and dementia have left Madison frequently confused and disoriented. They argued he has an IQ of 72, can no longer walk independently and at one point talked of moving to Florida because he believed he was going to be released from prison.
"Mr. Madison suffers from dementia, has no independent recollection of the offense he was convicted of and consequently does not have a rational understanding of why the State of Alabama is attempting to execute him," attorneys with EJI wrote in the stay request.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in cases involving mental illness, that condemned inmates must possess a "rational understanding" that they are about to be executed and why, but left it to lower courts to sort out what that looks like in individual cases.
Attorneys for the state of Alabama had asked the 11th Circuit to let the execution proceed after a circuit judge last month found Madison competent and a federal judge said there were no grounds to reject that conclusion or to appeal it.
"Both the family of Julius Schulte and the citizens of Mobile, Alabama, who lost a dedicated law enforcement officer as a result of Madison's crime, are entitled to see justice carried out in this case," lawyers with the attorney general's office wrote.
U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose this week agreed with a lower court that Madison could be executed. DuBose cited testimony from a court-appointed expert that Madison could answer questions about his case, despite a decline in his health. She also noted Madison's reported response that, "my lawyers are supposed to be handling that," when the warden came to read him the death warrant.
Madison's attorneys on Thursday had also sought a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing Alabama's sentencing method is similar to one struck down in Florida. The jury in Madison's third trial made an 8-4 recommendation of life in prison, but the trial judge sentenced him to the death penalty. Madison's first two convictions were overturned.
One other inmate in Alabama has been put to death this year after a lull of more than two years because of difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs and litigation over the death penalty.
Christopher Eugene Brooks was executed in January for the 1992 rape and beating death of 23-year-old Jo Deann Campbell.