The U.S. Supreme Court will decide this term whether capital punishment of
offenders who committed their crimes at age 16 or 17 is constitutional in the
case Donald Roper v. Christopher Simmons.
Last year the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in the case that executing a
person who had committed a murder when he was 17 is a violation of the Eighth
Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The question facing the Supreme Court now is whether such executions are
still considered cruel and unusual punishment in light of evolving societal
standards, according to attorney Seth Waxman, who represented Simmons during
oral arguments before the Supreme Court in October.
Another issue that bears on the case has been raised by APA, the American
Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and other advocacy groups
in light of science indicating that the adolescent brain is not as mature as
that of adults and may not reach full maturity until the early 20s.
Simmons was 17 years old when he was arrested for a brutal murder in
Missouri. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Missouri is one of 19
states where the death sentence is legal for 16- and 17-year-olds
(Psychiatric News, August 6).
Waxman argued that since the Supreme Court decided 15 years ago in
Stanford v. Kentucky that 16-year-olds could be executed, "a
consensus has evolved, and new scientific evidence has emerged, changing the
constitutional calculus for much the same reasons the court found in [the]
Atkins [decision], regarding execution of offenders with mental
retardation," according to a court transcript.
The majority of the justices recognized age as a mitigating factor in the
Stanford case, but stated in their decision that "the national
climate didn't rule out the death penalty simply because of the age of the
offender," according to the June 23 "On the Docket" by
Medill News Service at Northwestern University.
Missouri Attorney General Joseph Layton argued on behalf of Roper,
superintendent of a state prison, and other Missouri officials, that the
Supreme Court should stand by its decision in Stanford,"
leaving in the hands of legislators [rather than courts] a
determination as to the precise minimum age for capital punishment."
The high court decided in Thompson v. Oklahoma in 1988 that
adolescents who commit capital crimes before age 16 should not be subject to
the death penalty because they "exhibit disabilities in areas of
reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses."
Atkins v. Virginia, which barred executions of those with mental
retardation, was the first Supreme Court capital punishment case in which"
scientific research was raised and considered as an indicator of
evolving societal standards of decency," defense attorney Stephen Harper
told Psychiatric News. He represents juveniles facing the death
penalty and coordinates the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative (JDPI) in Miami.
The JDPI works to eliminate the juvenile death penalty, but did not submit an
amicus brief in the Simmons case.
"In 2002 a consensus emerged among professionals with expertise in
mental retardation that people with limited mental abilities to reason or make
good judgments should not be held to the same level of legal responsibility as
normal, healthy adults who knowingly commit crimes," Harper
Public support for capital punishment in general had also declined from 75
percent in 1994 to 62 percent in 2001, according to the December 2001 report"
Public Opinion on the Death Penalty for Youths" by Tom Smith of
the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.
The Supreme Court decided in Atkins by a 5-4 vote that Virginia
law violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by
allowing mentally retarded offenders to be put to death.
Shortly after that ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court, which had stayed
Simmons' execution, reviewed his case and decided that the Missouri law was
unconstitutional based on the Atkins ruling. Simmons was resentenced
to life in prison without the possibility of parole (Psychiatric
News, July19, 2002).
APA adopted a position statement in 2001 opposing the juvenile death
penalty and joined a friend-of-the-court brief filed in July on Simmons'
behalf. The brief was written by the American Society for Adolescent
Psychiatry and contains input from APA and other organizations, including the
AMA, AACAP, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, and National Mental
Health Association (Psychiatric News, August 6).
Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., chair of APA's Committee on Judicial Action, told
Psychiatric News that the brief "focuses on what science can
tell us about the neurological, physiological, psychological, and emotional
development of older adolescents from the perspective of scientists and
APA and the other groups argued that brain-imaging studies show that,
compared with adults, adolescents are less capable of good judgment, decision
making, and impulse control.
"The fact that leading medical groups spoke with one unified voice on
this narrow legal issue was because reduced adolescent culpability has become
more a matter of science than morality," Harper said.
The brief cites brain-imaging studies of mentally healthy adolescents by
researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) including
research by Jay Giedd, M.D., a child psychiatrist and chief of the
brain-imaging unit at NIMH.
At AACAP's annual meeting in October, Giedd presented the results of a
longitudinal brain-imaging study he and his colleagues conducted. The study
was published in the October 1999 Nature Neuroscience.
He and his colleagues discovered a second growth spurt in the prefrontal
cortex that occurs right before puberty. The prefrontal area of the cortex
controls planning, working memory, and organization and modulates mood.
The first growth spurt occurs at about age 3. New brain cells and synapses
are overproduced and then pruned back.
"The trimming of excess growth consolidates learning and results in
fewer but faster brain cell connections," Giedd said.
Another important discovery by Giedd and other researchers is that the
prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to mature. However, exactly
when full maturity is reached in the brain varies from age 18 to 25 depending
on the study.
Four justices made clear in a dissenting opinion in Stanford v.
Kentucky that they opposed the juvenile death penalty, Harper said. The
four justices are David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul
"We also know that three conservative justices, William Rehnquist,
Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, support allowing states to set the
minimum age for the juvenile death penalty," he added. That leaves two
undecided justices in Simmons, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony
Kennedy, whose votes will determine the outcome of the appeal.
The transcript of the oral arguments is posted online at<www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/03-633.pdf>.
Information on the juvenile death penalty is posted at<www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/juvdp.html>.▪