Juveniles

Neuroscience Research Indicates Susceptibility to Influence in Younger Defendants

A growing body of research into adolescent brain development indicates that the brains of even those over the age of 18 continue to physically change in ways related to culpability for criminal offenses. The Supreme Court referred to such scientific evidence regarding those under the age of 18 when it struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 (Roper v. Simmons) and when it recently limited life without parole sentences for juveniles. According to Laurence Steinberg (pictured), a professor of psychology at Temple University, the brain continues a process called myelination into a person's twenties. That process affects planning ahead, weighing risks and rewards, and making complex decisions. This research may yield mitigating evidence for younger defendants, including accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Steinberg's research shows that someone like Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time of the bombing, may not have the same understanding of his actions as an older adult would. Young adults are particularly susceptible to the influence of peers. “What we know is that this is an age when people are hypersensitive to what other people think of them. It’s also an age when people are trying to figure out who they are, and one way is by identifying with a group. There probably are similarities between the dynamics here and dynamics of antisocial or delinquent gangs. Older, more powerful young adults persuading younger adolescents to do their bidding for them,” Steinberg said. 

NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.

STUDIES: Raising the Minimum Age for Death Sentences

The theory of the modern death penalty is that it is to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" offenders. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court determined (Roper v. Simmons) that those under age 18 at the time of their crime were less culpable than older defendants and should be excluded from the possibility of execution. However, a recent paper by Hollis Whitson (l.) argued that scientific research on older adolescents implied that the Court's analysis should also apply to those under 21. Whitson cited neuroscience research showing, "that older adolescents (including 18-20 year-olds) differ from adults in ways that both diminish their culpability and impair the reliability of the sentencing process." Moreover, youths under 21 are treated as minors by numerous state and federal statutes, including liquor laws, inheritance laws, and eligibility for commercial drivers' licenses. Another problem highlighted in the paper is that minority youth suffer from the application of this punishment more than white youths. From 2000 to 2014, 60% of those executed for crimes committed by 18-20 year-olds were racial minorities, while only 40% were white. For defendants aged 21 and older, the reverse was true: 40% of those executed were minorities, while 60% were white.

ARBITRARINESS: Almost All Recently Executed Inmates Possessed Qualities Similar to Those Spared

Some defendants who commit murder are automatically excluded from the death penalty in the U.S., such as juveniles and the intellectually disabled. Others with similar deficits are regularly executed. A new study by Robert Smith (l.), Sophie Cull, and Zoe Robinson examined the mitigating evidence present in 100 recent cases resulting in execution, testing whether the offenders possessed qualities similar to those spared from execution. The authors found that "Nearly nine of every ten executed offenders possessed an intellectual impairment, had not yet reached their twenty-first birthday, suffered from a severe mental illness, or endured marked childhood trauma." In particular, "One-third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, or traumatic brain injury;" "More than one-third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five—the age at which the brain fully matures;" and "Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness."

Efforts Underway to Exonerate 14-Year-Old Executed in South Carolina in 1944

Attorneys representing the family of George Stinney, Jr., recently filed a request for a posthumous exoneration of Mr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Stinney, an African-American 14-year-old, was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls less than three months after a trial that was filled with errors. Although Clarendon County, South Carolina, where the trial took place, had a population that was 72% black, only whites served on Stinney's jury. Stinney's lawyer offered virtually no defense. His relatives, who could have offered an alibi, were not called to testify. Stinney allegedly made a confession, but the contents of his statement have never been revealed. His attorney did not file an appeal, so no court ever reviewed his trial. In a supportive brief in the effort to clear Stinney, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of Northeastern University School of Law stated, "The prosecution of George Stinney constituted a grave miscarriage of justice, causing great suffering for his family...Stinney’s shocking treatment was inconsistent with the most fundamental notions of due process, including but certainly not limited to the right to effective assistance of counsel."

Paula Cooper, Youngest Person Sentenced to Death in Indiana, To Be Released From Prison

Paula Cooper, who was 15 years old at the time of her crime, and the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana, will be released from prison on June 17, twenty-seven years after her conviction for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Her case received international attention, sparking a campaign that led to the commutation of her death sentence to 60 years in prison. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court received over 2 million signatures from around the world. Pope John Paul II asked that Cooper's sentence be reduced. Bill Pelke, the grandson of Ruth Pelke, forgave and befriended Cooper and wrote a book, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, about his experience with the case.

NEW VOICES: PBS Airing of "The Central Park Five" Underscores Problem of Innocence

George F. Will, conservative commentator of the Washington Post, recently drew a lesson about the death penalty from the documentary The Central Park Five, which airs on PBS on Tuesday, April 16. Will wrote, “[T]his recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes.” The Central Park Five tells the story of five juvenile defendants (four African Americans and one Hispanic) who were convicted of the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, New York, despite the absence of DNA evidence linking them to the crime. Four of the five gave confessions, which they later said were the result of police intimidation. All were sentenced to prison. In 2002, after a recommendation from the Manhattan District Attoreny, their convictions were vacated.

NEW VOICES: UN Secretary-General Calls for Worldwide End to the Death Penalty

On July 3, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on UN Member States that use the death penalty to abolish the practice, stressing that the right to life lies at the heart of international human rights law. During a panel organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Ban said, “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process… Where the death penalty persists, conditions for those awaiting execution are often horrifying, leading to aggravated suffering.”  Mr. Ban especially emphasized the need for change among Member States that impose the death penalty on juvenile offenders. He said, “I am also very concerned that some countries still allow juvenile offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged offence to be sentenced to death and executed. The call by the General Assembly for a global moratorium is a crucial stepping stone in the natural progression towards a full worldwide abolition of the death penalty.”  In 2007, the UN General Assembly first endorsed a call for a worldwide moratorium of the death penalty, a resolution that has been repeated in subsequent years.  Today, more than 150 States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.

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