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Who is competent to be executed?

Capital punishment has been a debatable topic in the criminal justice system—especially when it comes to mental health and whether the person convicted is competent for execution. Typically, questions of competency stem from concerns about a defendant with a psychotic disorder (i.e., schizophrenia) that would render them incapable of truly understanding and appreciating the crime they have committed. But what should we do when a defendant has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and no longer remembers committing the crime in question? Should we allow someone with no recollection or rational understanding of the crime to be executed?

In “Marking the progress of a ‘maturing’ society: Madison v. Alabama and competency for execution evaluations, Stanziani and colleagues (2020) delve into this question through examining the case of Madison v. Alabama. Unlike two previous cases that upheld the prohibition of execution when a defendant lacks a rational understanding of the crime they committed (Ford v. Wainwrght and Panetti v. Quarterman), the Supreme Court of the United States opted to defer the ruling of Madison v. Alabama to lower courts. Thus, concerns are raised as to explore further the competency for execution (CFE) standard set forward by Madison v. Alabama.

Most importantly, there is greater focus on the issues surrounding the two distinctions set by SCOTUS where 1) they established that just because the individual does not recall a crime, they are not immediately excluded from being executed and 2) the Eighth Amendment rejects execution to those who do not understand why they are being executed, no matter the cause. Ultimately, the authors share how Madison has established the importance of continuing research on both cognitive aging and dementia within the prison population. Additionally, it is important to investigate the standard practice in CFE evaluations, as to hopefully improve mental health professionals’ approach to the aging population who suffer from mental health disorders such as dementia.

In conclusion, because the older adult population has quadrupled in the last three decades and over 16% of inmates who are on death row are over the age of 60 (Stanziani et al., 2020), it is important for CFE evaluators to take the factor of aging into consideration while coming up with a just decision when it comes to executing an inmate with mental health disorders. That way, a fair ruling will set in place and thus allow for easier decisions to be made in future execution cases.

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