The constitutionality of laws that allow states to execute offenders who
committed their crimes at age 16 or 17 is the central issue in a case before
the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month the APA Board of Trustees agreed to join an
amicus curiae brief that argues for overturning such laws. The brief was filed
with the Court on July 19.
The amicus brief, which was written by the American Society for Adolescent
Psychiatry (ASAP) and contains input from APA and other organizations, argues
that imaging and other data show that the brains of 16- and 17-year-olds are
still developing and thus do not provide the same capability to reason,
control impulses, and make certain judgments as do adult brains.
The U.S. Supreme Court has relied on similar data to declare
unconstitutional the execution of mentally retarded individuals and youth
under age 16—the former in its 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision
(Psychiatric News, July 19, 2002) and the latter in its 1988 ruling
in Thompson v. Oklahoma.
In a 1989 ruling, the Court decided in Stanford v. Kentucky that
the reasoning and the national consensus that led it to bar execution of
youngsters in Thompson was not compelling enough to apply to 16- and
17-year-olds. Though, as Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., chair of APA's Committee on
Judicial Action, noted, "There is nothing magical about age 16"
that should render adolescents at this age eligible for a death penalty while
those aged 15 are exempt.
In the current case, Donald P. Roper v. Christopher Simmons,
Roper, superintendent of a Missouri prison, and other state officials are
appealing a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that overturned a death sentence
imposed on Simmons, who was 17 at the time he and a 15-year-old friend broke
into a woman's house, robbed her, and then, after taping her eyes and mouth,
threw her into a river from a railroad trestle.
Simmons had discussed with friends their intention to commit the crimes and
told them he and his companion would get away with it because they were
juveniles. A jury sentenced Simmons to be executed, but the Missouri Supreme
Court negated the sentence citing his age and the U.S. Supreme Court's
reasoning in Atkins as grounds for setting aside the death sentence.
It instead sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that the issues of reasoning and judgment
capacity in teens younger than age 18, based on evidence provided by experts,
pointed to the need to extend the issues that determined Atkins to
16- and 17-year-olds who commit capital crimes.
In the brief, APA and the other amici emphasize that sophisticated
brain-research techniques have shown anatomical factors in teenagers that
render them less able to make mature judgments, assess risk, and appreciate
potential consequences of their actions.
"Adolescents, even at the age of 16 or 17, are more impulsive than
adults. They underestimate risks and overvalue short-term benefits. They are
more susceptible to stress, more emotionally volatile, and less capable of
controlling their emotions. In short, adolescents cannot be expected to act
with the same control or foresight as adults," the brief points out.
"Adolescent brains are more active in regions related to aggression,
anger, and fear, and less active in regions related to impulse control, risk
assessment, and moral reasoning than adult brains," the brief explains.
It goes into detail about the role of brain regions such as the frontal lobe
and the amygdala in controlling behavior and emotions. And the regions
associated with impulse control and risk assessment are the last to develop,
not reaching maturity until after late adolescence.
The brief also emphasizes that the life many adolescents endured before
they were arrested can compromise their functioning and decision-making
abilities even further.
"To the extent that adolescents who commit capital offenses suffer
from serious psychological disturbances that exacerbate the already existing
vulnerabilities of youth, they can be expected to function at substandard
levels," APA and the other amici said.
These psychological issues can often be traced to growing up in
dysfunctional families, witnessing or being victims of violence, or suffering
a brain trauma.
Teenagers who have experienced these severe stressors "cannot be
presumed to operate even at standard levels for adolescents," the brief
emphasizes. It also cites research studies that have found that adolescents
sentenced to death for capital crimes are more likely to have endured these
harmful experiences than other adolescent offenders.
The amicus brief's final argument is that executing 16- and 17-year-old
offenders fails to serve the goal of the death penalty— to punish as
severely as possible the calculating, cold-blooded, adult murderer. Putting
these teens to death "is to hold them accountable not just for their
acts, but also for the immaturity of their neural anatomy and psychological
development," it states. This puts such executions in the category of
cruel and unusual punishment and thus violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth
Amendment ban on such practices, as the Missouri Supreme Court ruled.
Metzner pointed out that the brief avoids comments on the death penalty as
social policy or a moral issue, concentrating instead on the science on which
APA has expertise to offer the Court.
As of July, 19 states still allowed execution as a sentence for 16- or
17-year-olds— 14 states allowed 16-year-olds to be executed, and five
permitted it only for those aged 17 or older.
In addition to APA and ASAP, the American Medical Association, American
Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Psychiatry and
the Law, and National Mental Health Association have signed onto the amicus
The Court is expected to hear oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons
during its next term, which begins on the first Monday of October.