In the latest episode of “Discussions with DPIC,” Robert Dunham, former Executive Director of DPIC, interviews Karen Steele (pictured), a researcher and defense attorney in Oregon, regarding the special characteristics of late adolescent defendants facing the death penalty. Research by Steele and others points to the incomplete brain development in those aged 18-21 and how that can be exacerbated in those suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The research has also found that late-adolescent defendants of color are disproportionately sentenced to death.

Ms. Steele discusses her findings as a co-author of a study analyzing the racial disparities in death penalty cases involving juvenile and late adolescent defendants. The evidence has led her and others to recommend that late adolescents be exempt from the death penalty. Steele stated, “[A]rbitrarily drawing the line (for death-sentencing eligibility) at age 18, or 17-and-364 days misses too much, in terms of the same culpability-diminishing characteristics that the court has already relied on to exempt the under-18 class from eligibility for capital punishment,” especially when adding in the interplay with racial disparities.

Steele draws a similar connection between the disabilities of defendants with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and defendants of color. She explains that the developmental and cognitive issues occurring when fetal alcoholism is present are like those experienced by late adolescents: “There’s a parallel between those clients and my clients with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder because we’re talking about invisible things that reduce culpability but are not yet visible to our eyes. Black youth are disadvantaged because they are perceived as more mature. And Black late-adolescents, they are perceived as more mature than even white late-adolescents.”

You can listen to the podcast here.