Legal News
APA Among Groups Fighting Execution of Juvenile Offenders
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 16 page 15-15

Is it constitutional to sentence a person to death for a crime committed as a juvenile? That question will be decided by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons in the fall.

Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death row in Missouri after being convicted of murder. He committed this crime at age 17, according to a press release from the American Bar Association (ABA), which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Simmons's behalf last month.

Amicus curiae briefs were also filed by medical, child advocacy, and religious groups expressing their opposition to the death penalty for juvenile crimes.

Last August the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Simmons's death sentence on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to a press release from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

Last month Simmons's lawyers filed a brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., asking the justices to uphold the Missouri court's decision. No date has been set for oral arguments.

An amicus brief filed by the American Medical Association, APA, American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, AACAP, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, and National Mental Health Association argues that adolescents are less mature mentally, emotionally, and physically than adults.

"Another difference is that adolescents underestimate risks and overestimate short-term benefits, are more emotionally volatile, and more susceptible to stressful situations," the release stated.

Recent brain imaging technology has revealed that the adolescent brain continues to mature into early adulthood, and the regions associated with impulse control, regulation of emotions, risk assessment, and moral reasoning are the last to develop.

"Moreover, most, if not all, juveniles on death row have suffered from severe abuse, neglect, trauma, and other mental problems that exacerbate already existing vulnerabilities of youth."

Nobel Peace Prize laureates also filed briefs on behalf of Simmons last month including former president Jimmy Carter, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, former South African president F.W. de Klerk, and the Dalai Lama, stated the AACAP release.

In addition, the brief was supported by more than 420 prominent pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and neurologists, including former surgeons general C. Everett Koop, M.D., and Julius Richmond, M.D. Also, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Alvin Poussaint, M.D., a life fellow of APA and an AACAP member, submitted the document "Health Professionals' Call to Abolish the Death Penalty" to the high court.

The Simmons briefs are posted online at<www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/simmons/simmonsamicus> and<www.cjedfund.org>.

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