Imagine if you will, waking up in a hospital. You recognize the surroundings but have no idea of why you are there. You go to raise a hand to your head, a common enough gesture for those needing a moment to think, process, or come to terms with their surroundings, only to find that you are handcuffed to the bed. You call out for help, and your plea is answered by an officer who is telling you to keep it down. He refers to you by a name, and it is at this point that you realize you have no idea who you are. You have no idea if the name he is calling you is yours.

No memory of a crime you committed

Not knowing why you are there is bad enough; not knowing the person that you are is horrific. It is explained to you that you suffered a stroke and may have lost some of your memory. If this is not devastating enough, it is then explained to you that you are a prisoner, that the crimes you have committed were severe, and that you have been Sentenced To Death, a sentence that will be carried out shortly after you heal.

I don’t know if these were the circumstances that death-row inmate Vernon Madison went through, but it is possible they are close. Madison suffered several strokes, the result of which being that he is incapable of remembering the murder he has been convicted of, the murder that he was sentenced to the death penalty for committing.

This piece is not an attempt at questioning whether or not he is guilty or innocent, or even whether or not the punishment fits the crime. The sole purpose of this is to question the morality of killing someone with no recollection of their transgressions.

How, as a society, are we ok with forestalling the sentencing of someone to death for their crime because they have a cold, a broken bone, or suffer from some infection, but we have no compunction about killing a person who doesn’t know why he is being killed, or who doesn’t remember committing the act itself?

In the former cases, we feel the need to treat the individual and bring them back to health, before taking their life from them.

Why treat a death-row inmate at all?

If you are looking for the reason why we take the time, effort, and resources to treat an inmate that we are later going to kill, it is in accordance with the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor Cruel And Unusual punishments inflicted.” I can think of no punishment more cruel or unusual to the soul, then to rip it from life without knowing, or truly understanding, why.

Such understanding can only come from the acknowledgment that these transgressions, however, motivated at the time and undertaken with whatever misinterpreted sense of right and wrong, were in fact committed by the person. Without such knowledge, no true understanding of the crime is possible.

The argument that I am making is not that Vernon Madison does not deserve the death penalty, but rather that we as a society have an obligation not to carry out this sentence until such time as we have healed and repaired the damage done to him for the strokes that he had while in the care of the state. Outside of this, is there not an obligation on our part to prove that there was no such damage, or that it does not impede his ability to understand and remember his crimes?

And, if this damage cannot be healed, do we not have a responsibility to commute his sentence to life without parole?

It seems that the fate of Vernon Madison is somewhat sealed. There is some resistance by the Supreme Court to overturn a verdict handed down by the State Court of Alabama who sentenced Madison to death; the judicial system does not look too kindly on those convicted of murdering police. This was an important precedent, though, as this is the first time a court had to rule on whether or not it was necessary for a person to remember committing the crime for which they are being sentenced to death.

For this and many other reasons, there is considerable debate on whether we should even have the death penalty anymore. Nevertheless, there are those who are staunch supporters of the death penalty.