In Madison v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that a capital inmate’s inability to remember his crime did not render him incompetent to be executed. The Court reasoned that an individual who suffers from episodic memory loss may still “rationally understand” society’s reasons for sentencing him to death for a crime he once committed. This Note explores the impact of memory loss on a person’s self-identity, and consequently challenges the notion that a capital inmate who no longer remembers his crime can truly have a rational understanding of it. Specifically, this Note examines how memory loss substantially weakens the two main justifications the Court supplies for capital punishment. First, execution of a defendant who no longer remembers his crime offers society less retribution because the person being punished lacks psychological continuity with the person who committed the crime. Second, this change in identity calls into question the morality of execution in these circumstances because such a punishment may not be proportional to the crime committed. Ultimately, this Note proposes that the Court adopt a categorical ban on capital punishment for those who cannot remember their crime, which will alleviate the burden placed on mental health professionals to determine whether an inmate can “rationally understand” his crime.
Blurred Lines: How to Rationally Understand the “Rational Understanding” Doctrine After Madison v. Alabama,
48 Pepp. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/plr/vol48/iss2/4