American Medical News
September 27, 2004

Death penalty for minors: Cruel and unusual

As the Supreme Court hears arguments on using the death penalty against minors, the AMA joins the voices of science and international leaders against it.

No one seriously questions the rules that prevent a 16- or 17-year-old from buying alcohol or tobacco. Similar strictures prevent these young people from volunteering for active duty in the armed forces or even voting.

The reason for these limits is clear. It’s a recognition that adolescents, even older adolescents, do not possess a level of maturity and understanding of consequences that come with adulthood.

That’s why it is startling that, in certain states, these same young people still can be punished with death if convicted of a capital crime.

In October’s Supreme Court term, justices will consider this issue. In Roper v. Simmons, the court has the opportunity to uphold the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision overturning Christopher Simmons’ death sentence for a murder he committed 10 years ago when he was 17. Thus, the court will have another chance to outlaw a practice considered a human rights breach by most of the industrial world.

The bright light of science backs up this position, offering evidence that the adolescent brain is not wired like that of an adult. The AMA, along with a number of medical societies, has rightly filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to uphold the Missouri decision.

For starters, the House of Medicine argues that no data exist to support the assertion that the death penalty has any deterrent value for this age group.

The U.S. Supreme Court “has held that executing a mentally retarded offender is unlikely to ‘affect the cold calculus that precedes the decision of other potential murders,’ ” reads the brief. “The same is true of older ‘adolescents’ whose calculus weighs inputs — particularly, future consequences — differently from adults, and far differently from the cold-blooded murderer for whom the death penalty is reserved.”

Overall, according to the AMA, adolescents, even at the age of 16 or 17, underestimate risks, overvalue short-term benefits, and are more emotionally volatile, more impulsive and less capable of controlling their emotions than adults. “In short, the average adolescent cannot be expected to act with the same control or foresight as a mature adult.”

Cutting-edge brain research and imaging offer support for this position. Regions of the adolescent brain associated with impulse control, regulation of emotions, risk assessment and moral reasoning do not reach a mature state until after age 18. Teens are simply not as equipped as adults to engage in moral reasoning and adjust their behavior accordingly.

When the Missouri high court considered Roper v. Simmons, it concluded that the punishment is now used so rarely — juveniles currently constitute less than 2% of those who face the death penalty, and 28 states no longer allow its use against juveniles — that it qualified as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. The Missouri court’s decision tracks with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The U.S. Supreme Court “has held that adolescents who commit capital crimes before the age of 16 and offenders who are mentally retarded are categorically exempt from the death penalty because they exhibit ‘disabilities in areas of reasoning judgment and control of their impulses,’ ” notes the AMA’s brief.

Therefore, the next step — that of ending the practice regarding all juveniles — logically follows.

The AMA, along with the American Psychological Assn. and the American Society of Adolescent Psychiatry, just to name a few, are joined by other voices in calling for such action. Though the American Bar Assn. does not have a policy regarding the death penalty in general, the organization opposes its use for juvenile offenders or for people who are mentally retarded. And friend-of-the-court filings were offered by other nations and many world leaders decrying the practice’s inhumane nature.

Our country’s continued nod to executing teenagers places us in the company of nations known for their civil rights abuses. That’s company we, as Americans, don’t want to keep.

Unlike adolescents, the adults engaged in this argument have the powers of foresight and an ability to grasp the consequences of their actions. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court should do the right thing: Support the lower court’s judgment that the death penalty and juveniles constitute a cruel and unusual combination.