A
16 year old boy is at the peak of their adolescent life, learning and
discovering about puberty, maturity, right and wrong and future life goals. On
the other hand, a man of 25 has matured, lived long enough to have made both
good and bad judgments and has already been in the process of achieving those
life goals they once thought of as a teenager. In a given situation, is it
ethical to hold these two age groups, with mentalities that are worlds apart,
to the same standards and punishments in the justice system? Until Roper v.
Simmons in 2005, the justice system did just that, treat the actions of 16 year
old with the same consequences as if they had been committed by an adult. In
Roper v. Simmons the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional
to sentence a juvenile under the age of 18 to the death penalty. Before, Roper
v. Simmons, in Thompson v. Oklahoma it had been decided that only those under
the age of 16 could not be considered for the death penalty. Were these
decisions correct? If an adolescent can commit such a heinous crime as homicide
should they not also be able then to handle the consequences? The other side of
the argument against the juvenile death penalty states that juveniles do not
have the same reasoning skills as an adult and therefore cannot be held to same
criminal blameworthiness.

 

Facts
will show that the United States Supreme Court was correct in their decision to
ban the death penalty for all those under the age of eighteen. Recent brain
imaging scans have shown that an adolescent’s brain is not fully developed
until late in adolescence causing them to be immature, have diminished decision
making capacity and underdeveloped reasoning and thinking skills (Aronson,
2007); qualities which most adults possess. Furthermore psychiatric evaluation
on minor death row inmates has found that many come from backgrounds of abuse
and neglect and have received inadequate treatment. Is it then ethical to sentence
a person with undeveloped reasoning and thinking skills to the death penalty if
they cannot fully comprehend the consequences of their actions? If adolescents
are being considered to have diminished reasoning and thinking skills, how then
do they compare the mentally ill? Do the same standards apply? If so, then the
case of Atkins v. Virginia, in which it was declared by the U.S. Supreme Court
that the mentally handicapped would not be sentenced to the death penalty,
would be essential to the cause opposing juvenile death penalty. It is not
denied that these juveniles have committed horrendous crimes and should be held
accountable for their actions, but certain mitigating circumstances negate the
need for a death penalty.

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In
the United Sates, the first juvenile death penalty recorded occurred in 1642 of
a minor under the age of 18 and the youngest person ever given the death
penalty was ten-year old James Arcene in 1885 for robbery and murder (Strater,
1994-1995). By 1994 there were only 9 states, among which were New Jersey,
Kansas, and Maryland, that prohibited the death penalties for juveniles. In
2003 the number of states permitting capital punishment declined to 21, a
number of them allowing this punishment to those as young as 16 (Steinberg &
Scott, 2003). Since the days of the first juvenile execution approximately 362
more juveniles have been executed (Child Welfare League of America, 2002). The
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) run by the United
Nation’s (UN) Human Rights Committee sets guidelines for international law. One
of the prohibitions of the ICCPR is the sentencing to death of offenders under
the age of eighteen. The UN takes it a step further by outlawing life
imprisonment without possibility of parole. While these are standards that all
nations should abide by, several countries including Iran, Pakistan, Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen still allow the death penalty for
minors (Amensty International Ltd, 2011).

The
United States Supreme Court first imposed an age minimum for capital punishment
in the 1988 case of Thompson v. Oklahoma. William Thompson at the age of 15 was
charged with the brutal murder of his former brother-in-law. Because he was 15
at the time of the crime, prosecution petitioned to have him tried as an adult,
which was granted. Thompson was then convicted of first degree murder and
sentenced to death. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court they used the
“evolving standards of decency” set forth by Trop v. Dulles (1958) to declare
the death penalty on minors under 16 to be “cruel and unusual punishment”
(Thompson v. Oklahoma, 1988). Similarly using the “evolving standards of
decency” to amend who should not be sentenced to the death penalty was the U.S.
Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002. In this case, eighteen
year old Daryl Renard Atkins was convicted and sentenced to death for capital
murder. During the penalty phase of the trial, evidence was introduced of
Atkins’ low I.Q. considering him to be mildly retarded (Daryl Renard Atkins,
Petitioner v. Virginia, 2002). Using the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and
unusual punishment,” the United States Supreme Court found the death penalty
unconstitutional when applied to the mentally retarded (Daryl Renard Atkins,
Petitioner v. Virginia, 2002).

In September, 1993,
Christopher Simmons and an accomplice entered the home of Shirley Crook,
kidnapped and murdered her. Simmons was 17 at the time the crime occurred. He
was tried as an adult, convicted of murder and sentenced to capital punishment.
In light of recent state legislatures changing their law to increase the
minimum age for a death sentence, Simmons’ lawyers petitioned the United States
Supreme Court to reevaluate their stance on the juvenile death penalty. The
Supreme Court granted certiorari. This time, new scientific and psychosocial
evidence was presented to demonstrate that the brain continues to develop well
into late adolescence (Aronson, 2007). It was also argued that adolescents
lacked the maturity and capability to understand the long-term consequences of
their crimes to truly be held culpable. In a landmark decision, the U.S.
Supreme Court held that in light of new scientific data as well as the growing
consensus against the juvenile death penalty, it would be unconstitutional to
sentence a minor less than eighteen years to death (Roper, Superintendent,
Potosi Correctional Center v. Simmons, 2005).

Focusing
further on a topic that affected the decision in Roper v. Simmons, considering
their inept ability to make clear, conscious judgments, can adolescents be
placed in the same culpable category as adults? According to Steinberg and
Scott (2003) there are four factors that play a role in the decision making of
adolescents. These factors are “susceptibility to peer influence, attitudes
toward and perception of risk, future orientation and the capacity for
self-management” (Steinberg & Scott, 2003). All four factors are more
profound in youths than they are in adults, which is why adolescents will have
a more diminished decision making capacity. Adults have a better ability to
resist the peer pressure of others, whereas younger individuals are more easily
influenced by their peers and the need to be socially accepted. Teenagers are
riddled by the need to fit in with their peers and will go through far lengths
to act and think the way their friends do, even if they do not always agree
with the actions. On the other hand, adults have, for the most part, developed
a personality of their own and are not easily influenced by others. Youths also
lack the ability to look into the future and make the majority of their
decisions based on short-term consequences or outcomes (Steinberg & Scott,
2003). In a study where adults and adolescents were asked to provide advice to
a person in a risky situation, it was adults that were better able to view both
the positive and negative outcomes of the situations. Adolescents only looked
into the short-term effects. A theory presented by Steinberg and Scott (2003)
is that because of their short lifespan, adolescents are unable to compare the
value of future consequences. Results in the near future are more likely to
occur than something 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Similar to their inability to
access near or future consequences properly, juveniles are also unable to
correctly assess risk (Brief for the American Psychological Association, and
the Missouri Psychological Association as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent,
2004). A teenager’s impulsivity does not allow for sufficient time to weigh the
pros and cons of risky situations. It is their tendency to consider smaller
rewards over larger consequences. Also a factor is peer pressure. It is more
likely for a person to engage in risky behavior when in groups. Adolescents undergo
an intense period of emotional and hormonal changes, which leads to their
inability to properly manage or control themselves and can lead to impulsive
actions (Brief for the American Psychological Association, and the Missouri
Psychological Association as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent, 2004). A
minor’s incapacity to appropriately reason the pros and cons of any situation
has a crucial effect on whether they can logically be held responsible in the
same way as an adult for the same actions.

To
further distinguish the way a juvenile thinks compared to how an adult does,
are neurobiological studies on brain development. In Roper v. Simmons the
defense presented evidence through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that the
brain continues to develop well into late adolescence and even early adulthood.
Some studies even suggest that the brain continues to mature into the third
decade of life (Aronson, 2007). MRI allows scientist to view the structure of
the brain and the differences in neuronal activity while the person is still
alive (Paus, 2005). For better understanding of the results of these MRI scans
it is necessary to have basic knowledge about the functional parts that
comprise the brain. The cerebral cortex is made up of gray matter and covers
the surface of the cerebrum and cerebellum of the brain. Grey matter is the
area of the brain where processes end and is involved in memory, hearing,
muscle movement, speech and emotions (National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke, 2010). The white matter of the brain is responsible for
sending messages to and from the grey matter to other parts of the body.
Studies performed by the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of
Mental Health have demonstrated that white matter continues to develop and
increase in number until approximately 21 years of age (Paus, 2005). Smoother
and larger number of pathways supported by the white matter allow for better
communications to and from the frontal cortex to other parts of the brain. This
is important in the case of adolescence because the frontal cortex is the area
of the brain dedicated to higher order thinking and behavior management
(Aronson, 2007). In other words, the executive functions that take place in
this portion of the brain include working memory and one’s ability to respond
to inhibitions. The frontal lobe, the area where the frontal cortex is located,
is also responsible for risk assessment, decision making and emotions and is
thought to be one of the areas in the brain to take longest to develop. The
increase in white matter as one matures into adult is accompanied with a
decrease in grey matter. One explanation for this can be pruning, the process
in which connections that are not used are removed, allowing for the remaining
connections to become much stronger (Aronson, 2007). All this information
suggests that the brain continues to develop well into late adolescence. Until
the areas of the brain where cognitive and executive functions have fully
matured it is unreasonable to think of a juvenile as having the same thought
processing and decision making skills as an adult. 

As
a result of this information it may be easier now to understand how the Atkins
v. Virginia case can be associated with the juvenile death penalty. Without
undermining the gravity of the situation of a person with mental challenges, we
are able to point out that in both instances there is an inability for the
individual to apply logical and reasonable decisions. While some more than
others, both are unable to appropriately evaluate the consequences of their
actions and are equally influenced by peer pressure. In both instances, there
is also physical evidence of undeveloped or underdeveloped brain activity.
Considering the parallels of these two groups of individuals one would
questions why at one point they were held under different standards in the
justice system.

With
the information provided we are now able to better analyze the decision of the
United States Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons to determine whether they followed
the correct protocol in making their verdict. Putting aside the ethical dilemma
that it is to determine who has the right to death the death of another person,
have the judges properly applied their code of ethics. Interestingly enough,
the United States Supreme Court does not have a code of ethics, therefore the
standards for which the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, although does
not apply to the Supreme Court Justices, will be used to determine if the law
was applied properly. Concentrating on Canon 3 of the Code of Conduct for
United States Judges (Appendix A) which states that “A judge should perform the
duties of the office fairly, impartially and diligently,” we can assess whether
the judges were fair and impartial in their decision (Committe on Codes of
Conduct, 2011). A Judge’s role in sentencing is to determine the type of
punishment that is proportionate to the crime that was committed. If it is
proven that the defendant consciously intended to carry out the crime, then
they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, if there are
mitigating circumstances, such as a diminished mental capacity as often seen in
juveniles, the judge must take this information into account at sentencing and
a more lenient punishment should be given. Given this information and the
scientific information provided above, I believe that the judges were correct
in deciding the Roper v. Simmons case in considering the juvenile death penalty
unconstitutional. The Justices considered all the facts both locally within the
United States as well as internationally in order to come a fair and impartial
decision. The took notice of the states taking measures against juvenile death
penalties and concluded it violated that Eighth’s Amendment of “cruel and
unusual punishment.”

Stepping away from the
judge’s role in the controversy of juvenile capital punishment, it is necessary
to also consider the medical doctors who have performed the executions. As a
person enters the medical field they are required upon to take part in the
Hippocratic Oath, in which it states “I will do no harm or injustice to them”
(North, 2002). This particular line is often taken as meaning that a physician
must save lives not take them away. Bringing up the questions then, how can a
physician ethically take part in the execution of any person, let alone a minor
or someone mentally handicapped? It is a physician’s duty to promote health and
this would include even psychology not just physical wellbeing. If it is
possible to rehabilitate and offending juvenile, then that would be the better
choice rather than killing them.

The ethical role of the
states involved in the protection of the welfare of children is also brought
into question, especially for those states that at one point allowed to the
juvenile death penalty. The state’s parent’s patriate authority is in clear
conflict with capital punishment for minors. This position of the state is to
account for the best interest of the child. It also clearly distinguishes the
fact that the states believe minors under the age of 18 different from adults
as they are unable to care for themselves (Strater, 1994-1995). How is it then
that a state that does everything in its power to protect a child from harm
would also permit the execution of a child? It is a great contradiction to the
states job as protector of children.

With
all the data collected and numerous examples of how teenagers are unable to
fully comprehend the significance of their actions, there are still those who
believe that the juvenile death penalty should still apply. A large belief is
that if these youngsters are able to commit such a “grown-up” crime then they
should be treated as such. People who are pro juvenile capital punishment find
past history of abuse or neglect irrelevant to the cases. An adolescent’s
psychological state is irrelevant in deciding sentencing. If they can
understand that murder is wrong then they know it should not be done and doing
so will have severe consequences. Justice for the victims is often another
guiding factor for those approving of the juvenile death penalty. Another issue
of concern is that if these criminals are not given the most extreme punishment
then we are leaving them the opportunity to act in a criminal manner again. For
the public’s protection, some deem it necessary to carry out these harsh and
unfair sentences. By having more severe punishments for these offenders,
advocates of the juvenile death penalty argue that it sends out a stronger
message to fellow delinquents (Child Welfare League of America, 2002). Insight
into the rights of adolescents for other decisions that they may have to make,
such as abortion or birth control, can also support the argument allowing
juvenile death penalty. If it is thought that these juvenile have diminished
reasoning skills then how is it that they can be allowed to make life changing
decisions in other aspects of their life? This is a consequence that needs to
be considered by the argument against juvenile capital punishment.

When
the first juvenile justice system was developed its goal was to make juveniles
accountable for their behavior, but at the same time provide the necessary
treatment for rehabilitation (Child Welfare League of America, 2002). This role
of the justice system to rehabilitate offenders has changed over the years to a
more punitive system. This is not the correct direction that needs to be taken.
These individuals that have lived difficult lives and are incapable of
understanding their decisions, they need more help than punishment. We have
determined that there are many mitigating factors that go into the actions of a
person and they all must be taken into consideration. If the most extreme form
of punishment is not the appropriate one for these offenders then how should they
be handled? Setting them free is not an option; they did commit a crime and
deserve some type of castigation. A sentence often imposed instead of the death
penalty is life sentence without the possibility of parole. While important for
the safety of the public, it is not a solution for the underlying issues of the
offenders. More suitable consequences are needed based on each individual’s
circumstances. Severe psychological treatment is the utmost importance for
these offenders in order to determine where their incapacities stem from.
Without finding the root of the problem, there can be no treatment.
Psychological treatment will aid in the restoration of delinquent juveniles,
but natural brain development must be taken into consideration. It must be accepted
that child of the age of 12 will not have the same understanding as a person of
18, partly due to psychological impairments, but also due to their natural
immaturity and brain development.

The
truth is that there is no simple answer to this ethical dilemma. The evidence
is in support for the abolishment of the juvenile death penalty. As humans we
are unable to hold a child responsible to the fullest extent of the law for a
crime that they cannot even comprehend. Their diminished decision making
capacity, as well as other psychosocial pressures from being in such an
influential age, disables them from weighing the correct and wrong choices
reasonably in order to obtain the correct outcome. Aside from their past life
experiences that may shape their views and the choices they make, science has
proven that in general adolescents do not have the same brain level maturity as
adults. Brain development in some of the most important human functions, such
as risk assessment and long-term planning, continues well into late adolescence
and early adulthood. Physically if these juvenile offenders cannot form the
proper thought processes in their decision making as an adult can, then they
should not be held to the same criminal blameworthiness.