The Death Penalty for Juveniles
The Death Penalty for Juveniles
In a 2005 decision called Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the execution of people who were under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. The Roper opinion drew upon a 2002 decision by the Court holding that the execution of persons with mental retardation is unconstitutional: in both decisions, the Court reasoned that these special groups of offenders are less culpable than adult offenders with no intellectual impairment who committed the same crimes. The Court also examined the number of state legislatures that did and did not authorize the punishment of death for persons under 18; it found that a substantial number of death-penalty states had recently acted to exempt juveniles from capital punishment, and it viewed this movement as evidence of an “emerging national consensus” against the execution of juvenile offenders. As a result of the Roper decision, 72 individuals on death row were re-sentenced. Prior to the ruling, 22 inmates were executed in the modern death penalty era for crimes committed before they reached 18.
Key Supreme Court Cases on the Death Penalty for Juveniles
The constitutionality of executing persons for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 is an issue that the Supreme Court has evaluated in several cases since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Court recognized that the age of the offender was an important consideration when trying to determine how the individual should be punished. The Court endorsed the proposition that less culpability should attach to a crime committed by a juvenile than to a comparable crime committed by an adult:
”Their inexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult. The reasons why juveniles are not trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult also explain why their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.“
However, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at ages 16 or 17. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Supreme Court considered whether the special characteristics of individuals with mental retardation requires that they be categorically exempted from the death penalty as a matter of federal constitutional law. In holding that the execution of a mentally retarded persons is a constitutionally forbidden Cruel and Punusual Punishment, the Court asserted that “because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, they do not act with a level of moral culpability that characterizes the more serious adult criminal conduct.” The standard put forth in Atkins was not lack of legal responsibility—for individuals with mental retardation often know the difference between right and wrong—but of diminished criminal culpability. Because of their mental impairments, they “have a diminished capacity to understand and process information, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others.... Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their criminal culpability.”
Victim’s rights advocates protested a further narrowing of the number of individuals who were eligible for the death penalty. A number of attorneys general in states that allowed the execution of juvenile defendants and the Texas-based Justice for All organization submitted amicus briefs in the Roper case requesting that the Supreme Court uphold Stanford. In addition, they argued that the Court should not group juveniles together as a class of defendants, but instead “acknowledge that they are all different with respect to their experience, maturity, intelligence and moral culpability.”
By a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons (2005) that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. In making its decision, the Court considered both the national consensus that existed against the practice and testimony of professional medical and psychological organizations citing new evidence of delayed brain maturation that impacts culpability determinations for juveniles.
The Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons affected 72 juvenile offenders in 12 states.
The case of Gary Graham highlights the issue that juvenile capital defendants faced prior to the Roper decision.
Gary Graham was convicted of a murder committed when he was 17 years old. Under Texas law, he was eligible for the death penalty, although in many other states he would not have been. Texas law did allow his age to be offered as a reason for the jury to believe that, in the future, Graham would not be a danger to the community and therefore should be given a life sentence. Graham argued in his appeals that some jurors might instead believe that his age would actually make it more likely that he would commit further crimes and hence it served as an “aggravating factor” contributing to the likelihood of a death sentence. Under Texas law, a finding of future dangerousness by the jury typically resulted in a death sentence. Graham was executed in 2000, five years before the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the execution of juvenile defendants.
Despite the fact that Texas’ death penalty law lacked the formal consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors found in most other state laws, its statute was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1976 (Jurek v. Texas). In a later opinion, however, the Court held that states could not restrict the defense from putting on any relevant mitigating evidence (Lockett v. Ohio), and that the sentencer must consider such evidence in choosing between a life and death sentence (Eddings v. Oklahoma).
These decisions led to a partial striking down of Texas’s capital punishment statute in 1989. The Supreme Court held that the question of whether a defendant would be a “future danger” to the community did not adequately allow for consideration of the defendant’s mental retardation as a possible mitigating factor. (Penry v. Lynaugh). Some jurors might believe that a defendant like Johnny Penry with a low IQ might be more likely to commit future crimes, perhaps because he could not learn from his mistakes or be deterred by the law. That ruling forced Texas to change the way juries were instructed in death penalty cases. Juries needed to understand that a person’s mental retardation should at least be considered as reason for giving him a life sentence.
Gary Graham’s lawyers believed that the same reasoning should apply to a defendant’s youth. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but were told that the ruling in Penry did not apply to Graham because it was not retroactive, i.e., it would only apply to future cases. (Graham v. Collins). In a later ruling, the Court held that even in a case where Penry did apply, a defendant’s youth is not the same as a defendant’s mental retardation. Texas’ law did not have to change to give special consideration to the age of the defendant. (Johnson v. Texas). Ultimately, the Court struck down the death penalty for both juveniles and the mentally retarded. (Roper v. Simmons; Atkins v. Virginia).
Questions for Further Analysis:
- What changed between the Supreme Court’s decisions in Stanford and Roper to support the reversal of opinion on the execution of minors?
- How does a court know whether a particular punishment is cruel and unusual? Is this a subjective judgment based on the judge’s personal beliefs, or are there objective factors to be considered?
- Should international law and practices play a part in determining whether a practice has become cruel and unusual under U.S. law?
- Are there other groups comparable to juveniles and those with mental retardation who should be automatically barred from the death penalty? Should those with certain mental illnesses be exempted? those over a certain age? Those who appear to have been rehabilitated while on death row?