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The lawyer for a man on death row asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to spare his life. The state of Alabama argued the sentence the trial judge imposed should be carried out. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Supreme Court grappled with a difficult death penalty question Tuesday. Does it violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute a convicted murderer who has such severe dementia that he doesn't remember the crime he committed?

Vernon Madison committed a terrible crime. In 1985, after leaving his girlfriend's house, he returned, and shot and killed a police officer who sat outside in his car to provide protection for the woman.

Twice Madison was sentenced to death but the convictions were overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. The third time he was convicted, the jury recommended life in prison, but Alabama's unique sentencing rules allow a trial judge to override a jury's recommendation and Madison's judge did just that.

Madison has been on death row in solitary confinement in Alabama for more than 30 years. In that time he has suffered multiple severe strokes. An MRI shows part of his brain is dead, and there is no dispute that he suffers from severe vascular dementia.

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