Vernon Madison and the Death Penalty

On April 18, 1985 Mobile County Police Officer Julian Schulte responded to a report of a missing child. Upon arriving at the home of Cheryl Ann Green, Schulte was informed that there had been a miscommunication — the child was not missing and was on her way home thanks to a family friend. While Schulte waited in his police car for a second unit to arrive at the home, an argument broke out between Ms. Green and her then-boyfriend Vernon Madison. Schulte intervened, requesting that Madison calm down and leave the residence. Madison left briefly, but returned shortly after with a gun and shot Officer Julian Schulte twice through the driver side window of his unmarked police vehicle. A week later, Corporal Julian Schulte — by all accounts a good officer and better person — was pronounced dead.

Two weeks ago on Thursday, May 12. Vernon Madison was supposed to die.

If someone were to make an argument against the death penalty, Vernon Madison may indeed be the poster child. Not because there’s ambiguity in the crime — he most certainly murdered Officer Julian Schulte — but because Madison’s story highlights so many of the flaws which come along with state-sanctioned executions.  

Before living in Alabama Madison had spent time in prison in Mississippi. While locked up, Madison had relied heavily on psychiatric therapy; suffering from “a paranoid illness of profound proportion.” Even after being released, his mental state was shaky. Cheryl Ann Green described Madison as ‘not acting rationally’ — and  after the murder of his sister in late February of that same year, his behavior became even more erratic.

While it’s becoming more broadly known how pervasive mental illness is in our criminal justice system, the full extent of its reach and impact is still not well understood. We do know that roughly one out of every seven individuals in state prisons has a serious mental illness (one out of every five in local jails). But for defendants facing the threat of execution, having a mental illness can mean very little in determining whether or not you will be sentenced to death. Being mentally ill does not shield you from the death penalty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to appalling outcomes. In Texas, for instance, a young man named Andre Thomas, killed his wife and her two children (before attempting to kill himself). After being arrested, Thomas explained that they weren’t really dead, he had merely removed their hearts, which he had placed in his pockets, to ‘free them from evil.’ While in jail awaiting trial, Andre — who had refused anti-psychotic medication — gouged out his right eye with his fingers. Still, the jury rejected Andre’s plea of insanity, convicted him of murder, and sentenced him to death. If you look on the Texas department of criminal justice website, you can see a picture of Andre — although it’s wildly out of date because Andre is now entirely blind. In 2008 he gouged out his other eye before eating it. He is still on death row.

The attorneys for Vernon Madison argued that he was unstable and suffered from mental disorders. The court was unswayed and Madison was convicted and sentenced to death.

The case, however, was eventually thrown out. Madison’s lawyers argued successfully that prosecutors had removed African-American jurors explicitly for their race. Lawyers have relatively broad power in determining who will be included or excluded on a jury. In one instance, a prosecutor excluded a juror under the belief that her occupation as a hairstylist would make her vulnerable to hearing gossip about the case. And while the process serves a purpose in helping to achieve an impartial jury, in practice, it can allow lawyers to discriminate based on race. Something, in fact, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office had been found guilty of previously.

Regardless of whether or not Vernon Madison’s jury was selected on biased grounds — it’s likely that race still played a factor in Madison’s death sentence. Research has indicated that the death penalty is more likely to be applied to defendants who have killed white victims (Officer Julian Schulte was white). Another study found that the likelihood an African-American who killed a white person will be executed is more than double the risk a white person will be executed for killing a person of color. A study of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system found that between 1983 and 1993 black defendants were four times as likely to get the death penalty relative to white defendants.

When it comes to executions, racism is baked into the system.

Madison’s case would go back to trial for a second time. And again, Madison was convicted and sentenced to execution. Yet again the case would be thrown out — this time due to improper testimony from an expert witness from the prosecution.

And so, in 1994, Vernon Madison underwent a third trial. Again he was convicted of murder. But this time the jury did not recommend the death penalty — instead they recommended that Madison spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Now if Vernon Madison had lived in almost any other state, this would have been the end of the story. But Madison had the misfortune of being in Alabama, where the state’s elected trial judges have the ability to override life sentences and unilaterally impose the death penalty. According to the Equal Justice Initiative judges in the state have not been shy in using this power. In the past 40 years, Alabama judges have overridden the verdicts of juries 112 times. One out of every five people currently on death row in Alabama is there because of judicial override. Due in part to this, Alabama now has the highest execution rate in the country.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme court declined the opportunity to review a challenge to Alabama’s practice of judicial override. Disagreeing with this decision, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether or not the practice created a conflict of interest:

What could explain Alabama judges’ distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty? There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other States, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures…

Justice Sotomayor also pointed out that the logic behind an override decision was often questionable or near non-existent.

…Alabama judges frequently override jury life-without-parole verdicts even in cases where the jury was unanimous in that verdict. In many cases, judges have done so without offering a meaningful explanation for the decision to disregard the jury’s verdict. In sentencing a defendant with an IQ of 65, for example, one judge concluded that “‘[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests.’”

…Another judge, who was facing reelection at the time he sentenced a 19-year-old defendant, refused to consider certain mitigating circumstances found by the jury, which had voted to recommend a life without-parole sentence. He explained his sensitivity to public perception as follows: “‘If I had not imposed the death sentence, I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.’”

And yet in the face of a criminal justice system rife with racism, indifferent towards the challenges of mental illness and overzealous elected judges — Vernon Madison may still avoid execution.

While mental illness may not prevent a person from being executed, the U.S. Supreme court has said that those deemed ‘insane’ can not be put to death. Madison’s attorneys are now arguing that after two recent strokes he can no longer comprehend why he’s being executed and as such, can not be.

Even apart from the strokes, Vernon Madison’s mental health was likely made worse by his time  on death row. An experience which would have consisted of spending at least 22 hours a day in solitary confinement, locked in a cell potentially no larger than a bathroom. His visitation rights would have been sorely limited and even when able to see family and other loved ones, no physical contact whatsoever would have been allowed.

The impact of solitary confinement on mental health has been well documented. In a 2013 report from the ACLU, researchers noted that people exposed to long-bouts of solitary confinement frequently suffered from emotional and psychological deterioration which could include increased anxiety, severe depression, lack of impulse control, withdrawal, and even self-mutilation. Many, including experts with the United Nations, consider solitary confinement torture.  This has been Madison’s life for the past thirty years.

On June 23 of this year, Madison’s attorneys will argue in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that he no longer is competent to stand for execution. Their decision may ultimately determine if Vernon Madison lives or dies.

But for the rest of us, maybe it’s time we revisit the idea of state-sanctioned execution altogether.

Should a system wholly indifferent to the needs and vulnerabilities of the mentally ill be allowed to continue. Should we ever resort to a punishment so blatantly racist in its application? Can a system which has almost certainly executed innocent people really ever be considered just?

In 1984, just a year before Vernon Madison’s first trial, a man named Glenn Ford was convicted of murder in Shreveport, Louisiana. Just like Madison, Ford would spend 30 years of his life locked up in a box. But unlike him, Ford would be released after evidence emerged proving his innocence. The lead prosecutor of the case, Attorney A.M. “Marty” Stroud III, penned a letter to the Shreveport Times apologizing to Ford after his innocence became clear. In the letter, Stroud also questioned the whole idea of state sanctioned executions.

This case is another example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty…No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.

The clear reality is that the death penalty is an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized. It is an abomination that continues to scar the fibers of this society and it will continue to do so until this barbaric penalty is outlawed. Until then, we will live in a land that condones state assisted revenge and that is not justice in any form or fashion.

Stroud’s conversation is hopeful and it seems that, perhaps with time, a critical mass will come to the same conclusion. But every moment of delay means another Vernon Madison, another Andre Thomas, or another Glenn Ford. We can not delay any longer. Let’s put an end to the death penalty.

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