Supreme Court by a majority decision on March 1, 2005 in Roper v. Simmons held that death penalty for juveniles was "cruel and unusual" and as such the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution forbid the execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. The action reversed the death sentences of 72 convicted murderers in the U.S. who had committed their crimes as juveniles. While the Supreme Court decision has pleased the anti-death penalty advocates, it has not put to rest the debate about death penalty for juvenile offenders. In this paper I shall examine some of the arguments for and against the death penalty for juveniles and the implications of enforcing or doing away with juvenile death penalty.
Arguments for Juvenile Death Penalty
A Murder is a Murder:
The advocates for juvenile death penalty argue that a murder committed by a 16 or 17-year-old is as gruesome as that committed by an adult. There have been several incidents of horribly grisly murders by teenagers that deserve the maximum penalty. For example, Kenneth Loggins (a 17-year-old) along with his friends picked up a hitchhiker in 1994 and repeatedly beat her, finally standing on her throat until she "gurgled blood."
The group of murderers sexually assaulted her dead body, threw it off a cliff, and returned to mutilate it by stabbing and cutting it 180 times. Perpetrators of such crimes should not be spared the death penalty only for being a few months under the cut-off age of 18 years.
Individuals are shaped by their life experiences and possess different levels of maturity at different ages. Some 17-year-olds may be more "mature" than other 20-year-olds, depending on their life experiences and background. Hence treating juvenile criminals as a group strictly according to their age is not correct. Each murder case is unique and should, therefore, be dealt with on case-to-case basis and cases in which the juvenile death penalty could be applied should be evaluated individually. The jury should be trusted to decide whether a particular murderer deserves the maximum penalty regardless of age.
The alleged evidence quoted by anti-capital punishment advocates that death penalty is not a deterrent is inconclusive. The threat of being put to death as a result of committing murder has always proved to be a deterrent throughout human history. There is no reason to assume that such deterrence does not apply to juveniles. As an example, Christopher Simmons (of the Roper v. Simmons fame) was 17 at the time when he and a 15-year-old broke into the home of the victim (Shirley Crook) in Missouri; they bound up the woman with electrical wire and pushed her into a river to die. While planning the burglary and murder, Simmons told his friends that even if he were caught, nothing would happen to him because he was a juvenile.
If he had known that he would be facing the death penalty he would surely have not committed the crime.
With specific reference to the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, it is arguable whether "national consensus" had indeed developed in the country regarding the issue. As pointed out by the four judges in their dissenting opinion, at the time of the ruling, 18 of 38 death penalty states (47%) allowed the execution of juveniles; hence the assumption that "national consensus" had developed on the issue was incorrect.
Arguments Against Juvenile Death Penalty
Psychologists and behavioral scientists have since long known that adolescents do not have a developed ability to reason and are 'wired' to behave more irrationally than adults. Extensive brain research during the last decade has shown that the adolescent brain does not mature fully until the late teens or early twenties, with impulse control being the last to develop fully.
Specifically, MRI scans of the brain have revealed that those areas in the brain that govern regulation of emotions, risk assessment and moral reasoning also do not develop fully until after the age of 18.
Even before hard-core evidence about brain development of adolescents was discovered, the American society had recognized the inherent immaturity of young adults by disallowing them to vote or be drafted into the military until the age of 18. Existing rules even prevent 16 or 17-year-olds from buying alcohol or tobacco or enter into legal contracts until the age of 18. Such rules are reflective of the recognition that adolescents do not possess a level of maturity and understanding of consequences that come with adulthood.
In addition to the changes in the brain structure, which continues during adolescence, the body of teenagers also comes under the hormonal assault of puberty. It is well-known that at puberty, the release of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone into the bloodstream, besides developing the reproductive system and shaping of the body, are also responsible for regulating mood and excitability. The sex hormones are especially active in the brain's emotional center, creating-- Dr. Ronald Dahl, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh -- a "tinderbox of emotions." As a result, adolescents reach a flash point more easily, and they tend to seek out situations where they can allow "their emotions and passions to run wild."
Adolescents are Similar to Mentally-Retarded People:
Death penalty for the mentally retarded was rescinded in the United States Atkins vs. Virginia on June 20, 2002, on the grounds that such persons were not fully responsible for their actions and exhibit 'disabilities in areas of reasoning judgment and control of their impulses'. Exactly the same argument applies to juveniles; they too are not fully responsible for their actions.
Death Penalty is no Deterrent for Juvenile Offenders:
In its "friend-of-the-court brief" submitted to the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, the American Medical Association (AMA) argued that no data existed to support the assertion that the death penalty has any deterrent value for this age group [i.e. juveniles]. This is mainly because teenagers have little realistic understanding of death and tend to see themselves as immortal. The AMA further argues that just as the U.S. Supreme Court has held that executing a mentally retarded offender is unlikely to "affect the cold calculus that precedes the decision of other potential murders," the same also applies to the juvenile.
No Death Penalty does not mean Complete Clemency for Offenders:
It must be remembered that not giving the death penalty to juveniles does not mean that they are being set free; it just means that a society is sparing its youth (who may not have been fully responsible for their criminal act) from the maximum punishment of being put to death. Those juveniles who have been found guilty of serious crimes such as murder have to spend considerable time in prison to atone for their crime.
A series of national public opinion polls in the United States show that only about a third of Americans support the death penalty for juveniles. For example, a 2001 National Opinion Research Center poll found that while 62% of respondents favored the death penalty in general, only 34% supported the execution of juvenile offenders. Similarly, a May 2002 Gallup poll found 72% support for capital punishment in general, but only 26% support for juveniles convicted of murder.
Most other polls at the state level in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma show similar results.
The international community, too, is overwhelmingly against juvenile death penalty. As noted by Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion of Roper v. Simmons,
"Only seven countries other than the United States have executed juvenile offenders since 1990. Since then each of these countries has either abolished capital punishment for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice." International organizations such as the Amnesty International also oppose the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (September 2, 1990), expressly prohibits capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles.
Although international law or the law in other countries is not binding on the U.S., the opinion of the world community is not without significance. Furthermore, the U.S. being a leading advocate of human rights, should logically have laws that do not run counter to high standards of compassion and respect for human rights.
Death penalty for juvenile offenders has for long been a contentious issue in the United States. Despite a marked abhorrence for putting juveniles to death in most countries around the world, several states in the U.S. had continued to do so until recently. Although the U.S. Supreme Court, by a majority decision on March 1, 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, finally abolished death penalty for juveniles by declaring it violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the decision has not resolved the controversy fully. As we saw in this essay there are several arguments both for and against the…