(CN) - A divided Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the execution of an Alabama inmate who lawyers claim can't understand he's facing death due to a series of strokes and the onset of dementia.
The 11th Circuit halted
Vernon Madison's execution Thursday morning, about seven hours before he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection for the 1985 killing of Julius Schulte, a Mobile, Alabama police officer.
The Alabama attorney general's office filed an emergency motion with the Supreme Court, asking it to let the execution proceed before the death warrant expired at midnight, but a divided 4-4 court on Thursday night maintained the stay ordered by an appellate court.
As recounted in court documents
, on the night of April 18, 1985, Schulte responded to a domestic call involving Madison, and was shot in the back of the head as he sat in his police car.
Madison was indicted on two counts of capital murder, but the case was not without its controversies. In September 1985, a jury found him guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to die, but the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction after concluding prosecutors had illegally struck potential black jurors because of their race.
Madison was retried and again convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in September 1990, but the Alabama appeals court reversed the conviction for a second time, this time because prosecutors had elicited expert testimony "based partly on facts not in evidence."
Madison was tried for a third time in April 1994. This time, the jury convicted him of capital murder, but sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole. Judge Ferrill McRae overrode the jury's verdict and sentenced Madison to die.
This time, the appeals court affirmed the verdict and sentence, and in 1998 the Supreme Court denied certiorari review.
In their filing for a stay of his execution, attorneys for the Equal Justice Initiative said Madison suffered multiple strokes in the past year and they, coupled with the onset of dementia, have left him with significant memory impairment, a decline in cognitive functioning, and "ultimately an inability to rationally understand the reason why the State is seeking to execute him."
The Mobile County Circuit Court denied the Initiative's petition to stay Madison's execution, as did U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose.
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.
Her decision prompted the appeal to the 11th Circuit.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in cases involving inmates with 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.
The court's decision to keep the stay in place split between liberal and conservative justices.
The 11th Circuit will hear oral arguments on Madison's competency on June 23.