Juveniles and the Mentally Disabled More Likely to Give False Confessions

Studies and surveys have found that both minors and the mentally impaired are more likely to make false confessions, in part because they are more vulnerable to suggestion. A recent study conducted by Northwestern University law professor Steve Drizin and UC Irvine criminologist Richard Leo examined 125 cases in which individuals were exonerated after giving false confessions. The researchers found that 32% of the cases involved minors and 22% of the cases involved individuals with mental retardation. “They are more likely to go along, agree and comply with authority figures - to say what the police want them to say - than the general population,” notes Emory University professor Morgan Cloud, who co-wrote another study that found that the mentally impaired - even those who with mild forms of mental retardation - are largely incapable of understanding police admonitions of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.
A study published in the University of Chicago Law Review examining comprehension of Miranda rights found that only 27% of disabled persons understood that confessions can be used against a suspect, while 91% of nondisabled persons understood this concept. Disabled subjects were also found to be far less likely to understand that police cannot threaten suspects, that police and judges cannot force suspects to talk, and that there is no penalty for remaining silent. While juveniles and those with mental impairments are most likely to succumb to psychological pressure and make erroneous admissions during intense police interrogations, experts note that even the able-minded are at risk. Social scientists and legal experts say the best way to ensure that confessions or admissions are truthful is to require detectives to tape them from the Miranda warning in the first interview until the end of all subsequent interviews. Some states, including Alaska and Minnesota, already require this type of videotaping. UC Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe notes that video or voice recordings of confessions would reduce false confessions by as much as 90% because it would stop coercive tactics that are sometimes used by police. (Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2004). See Innocence and Mental Retardation.

The American Prospect Issues Special Report on U.S. Human Rights

The latest edition of The American Prospect features a series of articles by prominent writers and human rights leaders regarding the effect of the international movement for human rights on the U.S. Two of the articles highlight U.S. death penalty policies. Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh points out the conflict between the U.S.’s efforts to support international human rights and our domestic practices such as the use of the juvenile death penalty. “In my view, by far the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism is the assertation of double standards. For by embracing double standards, the United States invariably ends up not on the higher rung but on the lower rung with horrid bedfellows - for example, such countries as Iran, Nigeria, and Saudia Arabia, the only other nations that have not in practice either abolished or declared a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders.”
A second article, Criminal Justice and the Erosion of Rights by human rights scholar Deborah Pearlstein, examines the impact of legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and The PATRIOT Act on capital cases. Pearlstein notes, “While human-rights observers have rightly focused on terrorism-related developments in the U.S. criminal justice system, the trend toward limited procedural protections for defendants and a shrinking judicial role well predates the September 11 attacks. Indeed, security has been a central justification for rights-limiting changes in the criminal-justice system for decades.” Among the other authors in the series are Anthony Lewis, John Shattuck, Gay McDougall, Cass Sunstein, Gara LaMarche, and Mary Robinson. (The American Prospect, October 2004) See International Death Penalty and Federal Death Penalty.

New York Times Article on the Science of Adolescent Brain Development

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers Roper v. Simmons, a case that will determine the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders, new scientific research continues to emerge regarding the brain development of those under 18 years of age. New MRI-based research has shown that the brain continues to develop and mature into the mid-20’s, and that prior to the completion of this process, adolescents use their brains in different ways than adults. For example, teens often operate from a more instinctual and reflexive part of the brain, and researchers have found that adolescents in stressful situations lack the ability draw on certain parts of the brain that are fully developed in adults to control their behavior. “This is why kids who are good kids, who know right from wrong, sometimes do stupid things. They act on impulse,” said Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont, and a spokesman for the American Psychiatric Association. The article in the New York Times Magazine quoted the brief of the American Medical Association: “Scientists can now demonstrate that adolescents are immature not only to the observer’s naked eye but in the very fibers of their brain. Normal adolescents cannot be expected to operate with the level of maturity, judgment, risk aversion or impulse control of an adult.” While the medical community is quick to point out that these scientific developments do not excuse the actions of teen offenders, they do believe that these developments prove that juvenile offenders are less culpable than adults and should not be held to the same standard as those whose brains are fully developed. (The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004). See DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons Web page.

Iran Poised to End Juvenile Death Penalty

According to an Iranian justice department spokesperson, the Iranian Parliament is expected to approve legislation that would end the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18. The measure would also prohibit lashings for those under 18. Under pressure from the European Union to reform its human rights record, Iran has had no recorded stonings since late 2002, and the parliament has enacted laws banning torture and the upholding of citizens’ rights. (AFP, October 26, 2004). The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard the case of Roper v. Simmons that will determine the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders in the U.S.

Bush and Kerry Express Views on Executing Juvenile Offenders

In a forum hosted by the New Voters Project, U.S. Presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry expressed their views on executing juvenile offenders. “Federal law prohibits execution of those under 18 when the offense was committed, and I see no reason to change that statute,” said President Bush. Senator John Kerry stated, “I do not think that executing minors is good policy.” (Knight-Ridder, October 17, 2004). On October 13th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons, a case that will determine whether the execution of juvenile offenders is constitutional. See Positions on Capital Punishment of the 2004 Presidential Candidates.

Newspapers, Opinion Leaders Call for End to Juvenile Death Penalty

As the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Roper v. Simmons on October 13, newspapers throughout the country featured editorials and opinion pieces calling on the U.S. to abandon the practice of executing juvenile offenders:

The New York Times

When the Supreme Court considers an Eighth Amendment challenge, it looks to “evolving standards of decency” - and there has been a steady movement nationally away from the juvenile death penalty. In the 15 years since the Supreme Court last considered this question, a significant number of states, including Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and New York have prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders. In 30 states and the District of Columbia, there now is either no death penalty, or the death penalty applies only to people who were 18 or older at the time of their crimes. Even in those states where juvenile offenders can be executed, it is extremely rare. Only three states have done so in the past decade.

When it considers this case, the court should give weight to the growing scientific literature that says young people’s brains are still developing in important ways before the age of 18, and to the nearly unanimous international opinion on this issue.

On the same day in 1989 that the court upheld the death penalty for juvenile offenders, it ruled that the mentally retarded could be executed. But in 2002, the court reversed itself, concluding that national standards of decency had evolved away from permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. The court should reach the same conclusion now for juvenile offenders. (New York Times Editorial, October 13, 2004).

Chicago Tribune

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a case that could lead to a legal prohibition on the execution of anyone under 18 years old.

The high court in 1989 established the criteria for deciding whether such executions are permissible. At that time, it found there was no national consensus that the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded violated the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2002, applying that same standard of national consensus and “evolving standards of decency,” and looking in particular at what state legislatures were doing about the issue, the court reversed itself and declared that executions of those with mental retardation were unconstitutional.

It’s difficult to see how the court could now reach a different conclusion in regard to juveniles. The case against executing juveniles is as strong as that against executing those who are mentally retarded.

The court in 1988 ruled it was impermissible to execute children under age 16. The question at hand is whether, in effect, to extend such protection to 16- and 17-year-olds.

In seeking evidence of a national consensus, the court is likely to consider trends in jury sentences in capital cases, public opinion polls, positions taken by professional and religious organizations and even international practice. The direction in all of those realms supports the argument that these executions should be eliminated.

Admittedly, it seems to be an odd way to determine constitutionality. Public consensus is usually the province of legislatures.

In this case, though, Congress and the states through a constitutional amendment handed the courts the power to judge what is cruel and unusual in criminal law. There was a time in this nation’s history when it was considered appropriate to execute someone for stealing a neighbor’s chicken. Things have evolved.

And now it’s time for them to evolve again. (Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2004).

The Washington Post

The Supreme Court has an opportunity this term to correct one of the uglier mistakes of its recent history: its 1989 decision upholding the death penalty for juveniles. Yesterday the court held oral arguments in a case that asks whether it will continue to stand behind that ruling. It shouldn’t. … Even for those who favor the death penalty, killing juvenile offenders should be beyond the constitutional pale.

Of the 22 juvenile convicts executed since the death penalty’s reinstatement, almost 60 percent were put to death in Texas. Only seven states have executed juvenile offenders, and in the past 10 years, only three states — Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia — have done so. … Juries are increasingly reluctant to impose the death penalty on those who were children when they committed their crimes. And while overseas practice shouldn’t bind American constitutional law, it is worth noting the company this country has to keep in subjecting juveniles to capital punishment: China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The practice simply no longer exists among democratic nations.

Abolishing the juvenile death penalty will not dramatically alter the debate over capital punishment in this country. It will, however, bring to bear against a few outlying states the powerful national consensus that children — even when they do terrible things — are different from adults. Insulating them from the ultimate punishment should not be a tough call. (The Washington Post, October 14, 2004).

USA Today (Opinion Piece by former President Jimmy Carter)

I am hopeful our top court will take this opportunity to acknowledge that evolving standards of decency at home and abroad Ñ as well as basic principles of American justice Ñ require the rejection of executing children once and for all.

Opposition to juvenile capital punishment has gained significant momentum in the past few years in the United States.

The elimination of the juvenile death penalty would be a significant step in bringing the U.S. in line with the moral consensus of the global community. The Founders of our great nation celebrated the need for Òa decent Respect to the Opinions of MankindÓ in our Declaration of Independence. Since the end of World War II, our country has taken the lead in speaking out against human-rights violations elsewhere in the world and has enjoyed respect in world affairs.

The American system of constitutional democracy and guaranteed freedoms has stood as an exemplar in the eyes of people and nations emerging from totalitarian and repressive regimes. The continued policy of executing juveniles detracts profoundly from our credibility as a champion of human rights and, therefore, erodes our ability to influence the behavior of other nations and world leaders.

While almost universal condemnation of the juvenile death penalty has become as well recognized as the global prohibitions against slavery, torture and genocide, in America we have executed more juveniles in the past 15 years than all other countries combined.

For all of these reasons, I joined a Òfriend of the courtÓ brief to the Supreme Court in this case. Nobel Peace Prize winners, including former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Tibetan Dalai Lama all have encouraged the court to reject juvenile capital punishment. I fervently hope the jurists will agree with these esteemed peacemakers.

Our nation is now acknowledging what the rest of the world already knows: Executing juvenile offenders is cruel and inhumane. (USA Today, October 13, 2004).

See Other Editorials on the Juvenile Death Penalty and Editorials.

Research with jurors Finds Reluctance to Sentence Juveniles to Death

A recently published study by Northeastern criminal justice professors William J. Bowers and Michael E. Antonio, in conjunction with University of Delaware professors Valerie P. Hans and Benjamin D. Fleury-Steiner, finds jurors very reluctant to give the death penalty to juvenile defendants because of their immaturity and dysfunctional family backgrounds.

“In interviewing almost 1,200 jurors, we’ve found that jurors across the nation would nearly always sentence a juvenile to life,” said Bowers. “Jurors need to look at juveniles as immature and incapable of committing the crimes for which they are on trial. As such, the likelihood of a death sentence drops off drastically when jurors know the defendant was under the age of 18 at the time of his crime.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. Christopher Simmons was 17 at the time of his crime, but a jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court set aside his death sentence on the grounds that execution of persons under 18 years of age at the time of their crimes violates the U.S. Constitution.

The decision-making of capital jurors is a key way to measure community conscience, according to Prof. Valerie Hans, and the new study from the Capital Jury Project examines the decision-making of 48 jurors from 12 capital cases with defendants 17 or younger at the time of their crimes, comparing their views with more than a thousand jurors who decided capital cases with older defendants. The extensive juror interviews reveal that jurors view juvenile defendants distinctively. Jurors in juvenile cases see a defendant’s dysfunctional family background and upbringing as responsible in part for his or her behavior. They see the defendant as less than a fully mature and responsible member of society. Jurors emphasize the juvenile defendant’s diminished or partial responsibility for the crime. All these factors lead jurors to decide on life rather than death for the vast majority of juvenile capital defendants.

The findings are based on data from the Capital Jury Project, a study of the decision making of capital jurors conducted by university-based researchers from 14 states with the support of the National Science Foundation. The project has interviewed 1,198 jurors from 353 capital trials in 14 states.

—A summary of the principal research findings can be found in an article titled “Capital Jurors as the Litmus Test of Community Conscience for the Juvenile Death Penalty” in the May-June 2004 issue of the journal Judicature. —A full report of the research findings can be found in an article titled “Too Young for the Death Penalty: An Empirical Examination of Community Conscience and the Juvenile Death Penalty from the Perspective of Capital Jurors” in the June 2004 issue of the Boston University Law Review. (Northeastern Univ. Press Release, Oct. 6, 2004). See also DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons page.

Research Shows Significant Decline in Death Sentences for Juveniles

In a forthcoming article, Columbia University researchers found that, since 1994, when death sentences for juvenile offenders peaked, these sentences have declined significantly. In particular, the decline in juvenile death sentences since 1999 is statistically significant after controlling for the murder rate, the juvenile homicide arrest rate, and the rate of adult death sentences. This downward trend in juvenile death sentences is indicative of an evolving standard in state trial courts opposing the imposition of death sentences on minors who commit capital offenses.
This evidence is relevant for the upcoming Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons that will decide whether a national consensus has evolved against such death sentences. One measure of this consensus would be a lessening in the number of juveniles sentenced to death.
The Decline of the Juvenile Death Penalty: Scientific Evidence of Evolving Norms, by Jeffrey Fagan and Valerie West of Columbia University, will be presented at the Symposium on Actual Innocence at Northwestern University in October and has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed publication, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. (Press Release, Columbia Law School, Oct. 5, 2004) (Link to Press Release and Article). See “From DPIC” on DPIC’s home page, and DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons page.

Experts on Adolescence Call for End to Juvenile Death Penalty

An op-ed appearing in the Arizona Republic and authored by Dr. Mark Wellek, past president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, and Carol Kamin, current president of the Arizona Chapter of the Children’s Action Alliance, echoed growing national concerns about the culpability of juvenile offenders who face capital charges despite scientific evidence that they may be less culpable than adult offenders. Wellek and Kamin noted:

“American society has many gray areas. Our many cultures, systems and ideologies overlap in small ways and larger ones. However, there is one area that is completely distinct, and that is the law as it applies to children.

“Laws prohibit those under 18 from serving in military combat and on juries, voting, entering into contracts, and buying alcohol or cigarettes, precisely because kids are different - they are physically, emotionally and mentally immature.

“Groundbreaking new science reveals specific evidence of how these differences determine adolescent behavior. Their development is delayed, their minds operate differently, their emotions are more volatile and their brains are anatomically immature.

“There is a confluence of evidence showing that the regions of the brain that adults use to control and influence behavior are still underdeveloped in adolescents.

“For example, the pre-frontal cortex, which is one of the last areas to develop and mature in adolescents, is involved in the control of aggression and other impulses, the process of planning for long-range goals, organization of sequential behavior, consideration of alternatives and consequences, the process of abstraction and mental flexibility, and aspects of memory including ‘working memory.’

“3 states, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma, have executed the majority of juvenile offenders, which account for 80 % of all juvenile executions. In fact, Texas alone was responsible for 60 % of juvenile executions. Obviously, the juvenile death penalty is not widely practiced or even popular. Nationwide polls consistently show that 70 % of Americans are opposed to juvenile executions.

“In a criminal justice system dependent upon determinations of culpability, scientific findings suggesting juveniles as a class are indeed less culpable call for serious consideration. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the consequence of adolescent development in its 1988 decision to prohibit capital punishment for minors under age 16.

“31 states, the federal government, the U.S. military and the District of Columbia prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders. Just this year South Dakota and Wyoming signed bills into law banning the practice, and similar legislation has passed in the New Hampshire Senate and House, and the Florida Senate.

“This month, we joined the nation’s leading American medical, religious and legal institutions, child- and victim-advocate groups and nearly 50 countries, along with prominent individuals including Nobel laureates and former U.S. diplomats, in submitting briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments this fall in the case to end the juvenile death penalty.

“The American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and several additional medical associations filed amicus curiae briefs in support of ending capital punishment for minors, and a cross section of more than 420 prominent pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists and neurologists, including such notable physicians as former Surgeon Generals C. Everett Koop and Julius Richmond, and Doctors T. Berry Brazelton and Alvin Poussaint, along with nine physicians from Arizona, submitted the Health Professionals’ Call to Abolish the Juvenile Death Penalty to the Court.

“Many prominent child welfare groups, including the Children’s Defense Fund, Child Welfare League of America, Voices for America’s Children and the Children’s Action Alliance of Arizona, submitted a brief as well.

“In their briefs the groups say that the juvenile death penalty violates evolving standards of decency, that it serves no legitimate purpose and is excessive in light of emerging evidence showing the limited capabilities of juveniles, and that the practice is almost universally rejected by the international community.

“The rest of the world, along with most of the country, has recognized the senselessness of the juvenile death penalty. It is our hope that the rest of our country will join these voices.”
(Arizona Republic, August 1, 2004)

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty this fall when it hears arguments in the case of Roper v. Simmons. See DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons Web page.

National, International Leaders Urge Supreme Court to Ban Execution of Juvenile Offenders

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, medical experts, and 48 nations are among those who filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Monday, July 19, 2004, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end the juvenile death penalty. The Court is scheduled to hear arguments this fall in Roper v. Simmons, a case that will determine the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders. The U.S. is one of only a handful of nations around the world that continues to permit the execution of juvenile offenders, and one of only five nations (Congo, China, Iran, Pakistan, and the U.S.) to carry out such executions during the past four years, according to the brief filed by Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Carter and Gorbachev. The Court also received briefs from the 25-nation European Union, Mexico, Canada, and other nations that argued that executions of juvenile offenders “violates widely accepted human rights norms and the minimum standards of human rights set forth by the United Nations.” Similar briefs were filed by former U.S. diplomats, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Associated Press, July 19, 2004) View the Amicus Briefs. See DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons page.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: DNA Evidence Leads to Juvenile Offender’s Release

Following a fifth round of DNA tests, a Louisiana death row inmate has been released on bond while awaiting a new trial. Earlier this year, Ryan Matthews’ conviction and death sentence were overturned. The recent round of DNA tests on a ski mask, which prosecutors claimed was worn by Matthews during the crime, excluded Matthews but matched the genetic markers of another inmate. To date, no physical evidence linking Matthews to the crime has been found. Following the latest round of DNA testing, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s office did not oppose Matthews’ request for bond. Matthews was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed. His attorneys indicated that he suffers from mental retardation and a seizure disorder. (Times-Picayune, June 23, 2004) See Innocence.

Death Penalty Took Heavy Toll on Malvo Jurors

Although Virginia jurors in the trial of Lee Boyd Malvo maintained their camaraderie during the six weeks of trial and deliberations on whether he was guilty of capital murder in one of a series of sniper shootings, the group became sharply divided when weighing the question of whether to sentence the teen to death. The jury foreman and a second member of the jury revealed that a core group of four jurors did not believe Malvo’s role in the murders warranted the death penalty. They stated that the debate between life and death destroyed the previously cordial atmosphere within the group. Juror Susan Schriever, who supported a death sentence in the case, stated, “I couldnÕt understand how people sat in the same trial and didnÕt feel the same way.” Juror James Wolfcale, a Virginia Beach pastor who also favored the death penalty for Malvo, said that he was sorry to see the friendships among the jurors quickly break down during the sentencing phase. “I’m not sure I ever want to see them again,” said Wolfcale of the jurors who supported a life sentence. Wolfcale said some of those who supported a life sentence argued that the punishment would be worse than a death sentence for the young defendant. (Washington Post, June 19, 2004) See Life Without Parole.

Psychiatrists Say Teen brains Still Developing

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in Roper v. Simmons regarding the death penalty for juvenile offenders, researchers have found critical evidence that the brain continues to change dramatically during adolescence. This research may help explain the impulsive, often irrational behavior seen in some teenagers. “Kids may know the difference between right and wrong, but that does not stop them from doing dumb and dangerous things that they would never think of doing as adults,” stated David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. Fassler and other psychiatric experts base their statements on brain research that shows that the front lobe, the part of the brain that controls reason, develops last. Researchers at David Geffin School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health, and elsewhere have conducted a series of studies in recent years that follow the development of the brain from childhood to adulthood. This research has found that the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls the most advanced functions of the brain and acts as the body’s “CEO” by allowing humans to plan, anticipate consequences, control impulses, prioritize thoughts and think in the abstract, continues to develop for individuals into their 20s. Prior to the brainÕs full development, a more primitive part of the brain, known as the amygdala, controls decision-making. Brain-development research has led a number of national mental health organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, to plan to jointly file a legal brief on behalf of juvenile offender Christopher Simmons to the Supreme Court. The Court will hear the case this fall. (The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2004) See DPIC’s Web page on Roper v. Simmons.

State Legislators Advance Bills to Ban Juvenile Death Penalty

Just weeks after legislators in Wyoming and South Dakota passed legislation to ban the execution of juvenile offenders, lawmakers in
are on a similar course that may send a bill that eliminates the death penalty for those under the age of 18 to Governor Jeb Bush for signature into law. Members of the Florida Senate passed the juvenile death penalty ban by a vote of 26-12, and the House is expected to take up the measure later this week. Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who had been opposed to raising the minimum the age for capital offenders, has indicated that he will allow House members to “vote their conscience” when considering the bill. The legislation’s House sponsor, Representative Phillip Brutus of Miami, noted, “I think it will be a pretty strong vote. To invoke the harshest penalty of all - which is death - when somebody is 17 years old is wrong.” If the Florida legislature passes and Governor Bush signs the bill into law, the state will become the 20th in the nation to ban the practice and the third state to enact this policy in 2004. New Hampshire’s House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for a similar bill earlier this month, but Governor Craig Benson has vowed to veto the legislation. The Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty this fall when it hears arguments in Roper v. Simmons. (Various news sources including the Sun-Sentinel of Florida and The Union Leader of New Hampshire, April 27, 2004).

Rosalynn Carter Calls for End to Juvenile Death Penalty

In a recent opinion piece published in The Miami Herald, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter called on Florida and other states that continue to sentence juvenile offenders to death to abandon the practice, noting that it “violates current principles of American justice.” Carter stated that America could soon be the last nation on Earth to execute juvenile offenders, and that the U.S. is one of only two nations that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Carter wrote:

“Our country has sought to protect juveniles in almost every facet of their life, enacting laws prohibiting those younger than 18 years old from using alcohol or cigarettes, entering into contracts, voting or serving in armed combat. We spend millions on drug-prevention outreach and sex education in our schools. Yet, when it comes to the most serious of crimes committed by juveniles, we fail to acknowledge their lessened culpability and inflict the severest of punishments.

“Adolescents are not adults. They lack full capacity to reason, control impulses and understand consequences. They do not handle social pressures and other stresses like adults do and therefore, are less culpable than adults who commit crimes. Scientific studies demonstrate their lessened responsibility. We previously believed that the brain was fully developed by age 14, but recent studies have revealed that it continues to mature until the early 20s.

“We also know that the frontal lobe, which controls the brain’s most complex functions — particularly reasoning — undergoes more change during adolescence than at any other time. It is the last part of the brain to develop.

“Such findings have led the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Society of Adolescent Psychiatry to oppose the death penalty for juveniles.

“If adolescents who grow up in warm and loving environments cannot fully reason or control their impulses as research has shown, then abused children suffer immense emotional and developmental disadvantages. A 2003 study found that on average, juveniles on Death Row have had multiple experiences of physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental disorders or are living in poverty. An earlier study of 14 juveniles sentenced to death found that 12 had been physically or sexually abused, some at the hands of relatives. We as a society have failed to protect or treat these children and are ill prepared to deal with them when some of them commit horrible crimes.

“Acknowledging the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders does not minimize the suffering and impact upon their victims’ families. Tragically, there are juveniles who commit terrible crimes. But punishment is to be imposed according to the degree of culpability of the offender.

“I hope the Supreme Court will rule later this year when it hears the case of Roper vs. Simmons that juvenile executions are unconstitutional ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ Meanwhile, the American public should send a message to the court through their state legislatures that ‘“evolving standards of decency” do not tolerate executing juvenile offenders.”

(Miami Herald, April 7, 2004) See New Voices.

South Dakota Legislators Vote to Ban Death Penalty for Juveniles

Legislation banning capital punishment for crimes committed by those younger than 18 has passed both the South Dakota House and Senate. The bill will now go to Governor Mike Rounds for signature into law. Republican Representative Hal Wick of Sioux Falls supported the bipartisan measure, stating, “I do have concerns about heinous crimes, but I don’t think it’s our place to destroy or forget the sanctity of life. Violent responses by the state beget more violence. The state must lead by example. Instead of encouraging a culture of death by killing criminals, we must seek punishment for crimes that respects the dignity of human life and at the same time serves human justice.” Internationally, the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that allow the execution of juvenile offenders. (Argus Leader, February 25, 2004) Nationally, the federal government and 17 of the 38 states that have the death penalty ban the execution of the juvenile offenders. Rounds’ signature would make South Dakota the 18th death penalty state to abandon the practice. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty this fall when it hears arguments in Roper v. Simmons. See DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons page.

New Hampshire Senate, Wyoming House Pass Bills to Ban Juvenile Death Penalty

Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders, two state legislative bodies have passed measures to ban the practice. The New Hampshire Senate passed its bill to ban the execution of those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense on February 19, 2004. The measure now moves to the House, where a committee hearing and vote are expected in the coming weeks. The Wyoming House also passed a measure to ban the execution of juvenile offenders. The House voted 45-12 in support of the bill on February 20, and members of the Wyoming Senate are expected to consider the ban next week. A bill is also advancing in the South Dakota legislature. Currently, 17 of the 38 states that maintain capital punishment forbid the execution of those who were juveniles at the time of their crime. The juvenile death penalty is also forbidden under the federal government’s statute. See Recent Legislative Activity.

Florida Capital Punishment Supporter Urges State to Abandon Juvenile Death Penalty

Florida Senator Victor Crist (R-Tampa), a long-time death penalty supporter, is asking his legislative colleagues to support a bill to bar the juvenile death penalty in Florida. “In my heart and soul I believe it’s the right thing to do. There is a certain essence of juveniles that make them different,” said Crist. Research supports that notion. David Fassler, a Vermont psychiatrist who helped the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry draft its policy against capital punishment for juveniles stated, “[L]aws raising the drinking age to 21 or setting the voting age at 18 already recognize that adolescents are different than adults. Now we really have very solid scientific evidence that, even when they do horrible things, they shouldn’t face the same punishment as adults.” Crist believes the bill will succeed in the Senate, which passed a similar measure in 2001. Nationally in 2004, South Dakota and Wyoming have both abandoned the juvenile death penalty, bringing the total number of states that forbid the practice to 31, including the 12 non-death penalty states. The Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty this fall when it hears arguments in Roper v. Simmons. (Orlando Sentinel, March 8, 2004) For editorials from around the country in support of such a measure, see DPIC’s Roper v. Simmons page.

Despite Upcoming Supreme Court Argument, Texas Schedules Execution Dates for Four Juvenile Offenders

Texas has scheduled the execution of four juvenile offenders between March and June of 2004 despite the fact that the U. S. Supreme Court has agreed to review whether such executions are constitutional. Arguments in Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633, a case from Missouri where the state Supreme Court ruled that the execution of those under the age 18 at the time of their crime would be cruel and unusual punishment, are not expected to take place until this coming fall, months after the scheduled executions of Edward Capetillo, Anzel Jones, Efrain Perez, and Raul Villarreal. All of these defendants were 17 years old at the time of their crimes. Requests for stays of execution are being filed. Typically, cases in the same posture as one before the Supreme Court are held up until the Court rules. There are 73 juvenile offenders on death row in America. Only two juvenile offenders received death sentences in 2003, the fewest in 15 years. See Supreme Court.