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Madison v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 15, 2017

VERNON MADISON, Petitioner-Appellant,

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 1:16-cv-00191-KD-M

          Before WILSON, MARTIN, and JORDAN, Circuit Judges.

          MARTIN, Circuit Judge.

         Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who is incompetent.[1] Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409-10, 106 S.Ct. 2595, 2602 (1986). The Court has since clarified that a person cannot be executed if he lacks a "rational understanding" of the reason for his execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 954-60, 127 S.Ct. 2842, 2859-62 (2007). This standard requires the prisoner to be able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Ferguson v. Sec'y, Florida Dep't of Corr., 716 F.3d 1315, 1336 (11th Cir. 2013). The Supreme Court told us that if the prisoner does not understand this connection, "the punishment can serve no proper purpose" and cannot be carried out. Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S.Ct. at 2862.

         This habeas petitioner, Vernon Madison, is a 66-year-old man on death row for the murder of a police officer over three decades ago. In recent years, Mr. Madison has suffered strokes resulting in significant cognitive and physical decline. His lawyers argue here that he is mentally incompetent to be executed under Ford and Panetti. Finding that Mr. Madison had made a substantial threshold showing of incompetency, an Alabama trial court held a competency hearing. 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. The State presented expert testimony from Dr. Karl Kirkland. Dr. Kirkland testified that Mr. Madison was able to accurately discuss his legal appeals and legal theories with his attorneys and-on pretty much this basis alone-concluded that Mr. Madison has "a rational understanding of [his] sentence." Accepting the testimony of Dr. Kirkland, the Alabama trial court decided that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed. Mr. Madison argues that the trial court's decision relied on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of the law. We agree.

         In so holding, we are mindful of the great deference due to state court decisions on federal habeas review, particularly when the state court is applying a general standard like the one in Panetti. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011) ("The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations." (quotation omitted)). But "even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner." Panetti, 551 U.S. at 953, 127 S.Ct. at 2858. Panetti may set out a general standard for competency, but the focus of the inquiry is clear. Panetti doesn't ask whether the prisoner can talk about the history of his case or legal theories with his attorneys. Instead, Panetti requires courts to look at whether the prisoner is able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S.Ct. at 2862. One of the experts testified that due to a mental disorder, Mr. Madison was not able to make this connection. The other expert never addressed this question at all. This record is therefore wholly insufficient to support the trial court's decision. We conclude that the state court's decision that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed rested on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of Panetti. We therefore reverse the District Court's denial of habeas relief.


         Mr. Madison has been tried three times for killing a police officer in 1985. Madison v. State, 718 So.2d 90, 94 (Ala.Crim.App.1997). His first two convictions were reversed. At his third trial, the jury found Mr. Madison guilty of capital murder and recommended a life sentence by an 8-4 vote. See id. The trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Mr. Madison to death. Id. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, id. at 104, and the Alabama Supreme Court. Ex parte Madison, 718 So.2d 104, 108 (Ala. 1998).

         In February 2016, following the denial of state and federal habeas relief, Mr. Madison filed a petition for suspension of his death sentence in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama, arguing that he was incompetent to be executed under Ford and Alabama law. See Ala. Code § 15-16-23 (providing that the trial court shall suspend the execution of a death sentence if "it is made to appear to the satisfaction of the trial court that the [prisoner] is then insane"). The Alabama trial court found that Mr. Madison had made a preliminary showing of incompetency, ordered that Mr. Madison be evaluated by a court-appointed expert, and scheduled a competency hearing. At the competency hearing, the court heard testimony from the court-appointed expert as well as Mr. Madison's expert. The court issued an order on April 29, 2016, finding that Mr. Madison was competent to be executed. Under state law, this ruling is not subject to review by any other Alabama court. See Ala. Code § 15-16-23.

         Mr. Madison then filed a motion for a stay of execution and a petition for federal habeas relief in the U.S. District Court. The District Court found that Mr. Madison had exhausted his Ford claim, but it denied relief on the merits.[2] Mr. Madison appealed, and we granted Mr. Madison's motion for a certificate of appealability, stayed his execution, and ordered expedited briefing on the merits of his Ford claim.

         II. FACTS


         Mr. Madison, who is 66 years old, has a history of physical and mental impairments. He is legally blind, cannot walk independently, is incontinent, and has slurred speech. He has also suffered at least two recent strokes-one in May 2015 and another in January 2016.[3] The May 2015 stroke was severe, and affected Mr. Madison's vision while also causing a substantial deficit in motor coordination. After this stroke, he showed signs of memory loss, repeatedly asking that his mother be informed that he had a stroke despite the fact that she had passed away several years earlier. On January 4, 2016, Mr. Madison had another stroke. He was found in his prison cell, unresponsive and incontinent. Medical records document that Mr. Madison was in an altered mental status after the January 2016 stroke. He appeared "very confused" and disoriented, and he exhibited signs of memory loss.

         Following these strokes, Mr. Madison's legal team noticed a significant decline in his mental status, including memory loss, difficulty communicating, and profound disorientation and confusion. Mr. Madison reported frequently urinating on himself because "no one will let me out to use the bathroom, " although he has a toilet in his cell. And Mr. Madison told his attorney during a visit in February 2016 that he planned to move to Florida after his release from prison. As a result, Mr. Madison's attorneys requested-and the Alabama trial court granted-a hearing to determine whether Mr. Madison is competent to be executed.


         Before the hearing, Mr. Madison was evaluated by Dr. Kirkland, the court-appointed psychologist, and Dr. Goff, a neuropsychologist retained by Mr. Madison's counsel. Both experts reviewed Mr. Madison's medical records and examined him. Both experts testified at the hearing and prepared written reports that were admitted into evidence.

         1. The Expert Reports

         In his report, Dr. Kirkland acknowledged that Mr. Madison's strokes had caused significant physical and cognitive decline and found no indication of malingering. Despite this decline, Dr. Kirkland found that Mr. Madison was able to accurately describe the history of his case regarding his appeals and was aware that the trial judge had overridden the jury's life sentence. Dr. Kirkland also noted that Mr. Madison could discuss details from his youth, such as where he attended elementary and high school. The report concluded that "Mr. Madison appears to be able to have a rational understanding of the sentence, the results or effects of the sentence, and to still be able to discuss defense and legal theories with his attorneys."

         Dr. Goff's report also concluded that Mr. Madison had suffered "significant cognitive decline" due to his strokes and that there was no clinical indication of malingering. He administered the fourth edition of the Weschsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV) and calculated a General Ability Index of 72, which falls within the borderline range of intelligence.[4] According to Dr. Goff's report, this score marked a very significant decline from Mr. Madison's previous levels of function. The report explained that Mr. Madison's Working Memory Index of 58 reflected "a very substantial deficit" in regard to working memory and that Mr. Madison had "a significant cognitive deficit." [5]

         Dr. Goff diagnosed Mr. Madison with major vascular neurological disorder (vascular dementia) and reported that Madison suffered from retrograde amnesia. As a result, Mr. Madison could not recall certain past events that happened before his January 2016 stroke. Dr. Goff's report explained that if Mr. Madison was told a fact or a series of facts he might be able to recall this new information, but he would not be able to recall any memories affected by the retrograde amnesia. According to Dr. Goff, Mr. Madison didn't have an independent recollection of his crime or the identity of the victim. Dr. Goff reported:

When [I] asked [Mr. Madison] where he was convicted from he said, "It must have been Mobile" although he seemed unsure. Again he was able to tell me that the crime "must have been a murder." He could not identify the name of the victim. . . . [H]e indicates that he does not believe that he ever killed anybody because, "I never went around killing folks."

         The report noted that Mr. Madison was not able to tell Dr. Goff the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest to the trial or any related details. During the interview, Mr. Madison said that he had been told by others that he had three trials and that the judge had overridden the jury's life sentence.

         Dr. Goff reported that Mr. Madison understood the meaning of "execution" and "the idea of being dead." Dr. Goff concluded that Mr. Madison understood what he had been tried for but-because he could not remember the underlying crime and didn't believe he had ever killed anyone-"[h]e does not seem to understand the reasoning behind the current proceeding [his execution] as it applies to him."

         2. The Evidentiary Hearing

         Dr. Kirkland, Dr. Goff, and Mr. Madison's prison warden testified at the competency hearing. Dr. Kirkland emphasized Mr. Madison's ability to discuss the details of his legal appeals and the current status of his case. Dr. Kirkland also testified that Mr. Madison was aware of his execution. On redirect examination, Dr. Kirkland acknowledged that Mr. Madison's mental condition had significantly deteriorated, but he testified that Mr. Madison was able to talk "about very specific things that would indicate that he could remember specific things about the time of the offense." In response to the court's question of whether Mr. Madison understood that the state was seeking retribution for an act that he had committed, Dr. Kirkland replied: "Certainly. [Mr. Madison] talked specifically about [a] death sentence versus life without [parole] in the original trial and the first retrial and in the second."

         Dr. Goff's testimony at the evidentiary hearing largely followed his report. Dr. Goff testified that the stroke Mr. Madison suffered in January 2016 likely caused his memory problems. Dr. Goff described this event as a thalamic stroke- a type of stroke that commonly results in memory problems as well as other difficulties-and this conclusion was in keeping with an MRI report showing a "[t]iny focal acute to subacute infarct in the right thalamus." According to Dr. Goff, areas of Mr. Madison's brain have essentially died as a result of his strokes, and this is consistent with Mr. Madison's medical records.[6] It appeared to Dr. Goff that the basis of Mr. Madison's knowledge about his case was information he learned from his attorneys. Dr. Goff testified that Mr. Madison understood that the State was seeking retribution but didn't understand the past act for which he was being punished. Dr. Goff concluded that Mr. Madison understood he was being executed but-because he lacked memories of his past-didn't understand why.

         3. Warden Davenport

         The state called as a witness Warden Davenport, who had served the death warrant on Mr. Madison. Mr. Davenport testified that he read the court order setting the execution date to Mr. Madison and that Mr. Madison said "my lawyers are supposed to be handling that." The Warden also testified that prisoners are assigned mental health codes if they receive mental health care. According to Mr. Davenport, Mr. Madison's mental health code was zero, which indicates that Madison was not receiving treatment for a mental health condition.


         The Alabama trial court issued a written order in which it held that Mr. Madison was competent to be executed. The court identified Ford and Panetti as the relevant standards. It stated that the burden of proof was on Mr. Madison to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, "that [he] suffers from a mental illness which deprives [him] of the capacity to rationally understand that he is being executed as a punishment for a crime." The court's order summarized the evidence from the competency hearing, including the testimony of Dr. Kirkland and Dr. Goff. It then found that Mr. Madison had failed to prove his incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence. The court "accept[ed]" the testimony of Dr. Kirkland regarding Mr. Madison's understanding of his execution. It found that Mr. Madison "has a rational[] understanding, as required by Panetti, that he is going to be executed because of the murder he committed and a rational[] understanding that the State is seeking retribution and that he will die when he is executed."


         This appeal is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).[7] AEDPA imposes a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings." Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1862 (2010) (quotation omitted). It bars federal courts from granting habeas relief on a claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court's decision (1) "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " or (2) "was based ...

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