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Constitution Day: Should Juvenile Offenders Be Subject to the Death Penalty?
September 13, 2005
JUVENILES LOSE ELIGIBILITY FOR
DEATH PENALTY IN UNITED STATES
By Barry Anderson, LEJA
Prior to March 2005, the United States was one of two countries in the world, which had laws that allowed juveniles to be executed (a juvenile being a child under the age of 18). The standard in the United States was basically that if a juvenile was 16 or 17, it was constitutional to execute the juvenile. The US Supreme Court had, somewhat mysteriously, drawn a line in the sand where it held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute a 15 year old who committed a heinous crime, but it was not cruel and unusual punishment at age 16 and 17.
In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, a Missouri case decided in March of 2005, held that the execution of any juvenile (under 18 years of age when offending) was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments. The majority stated that pursuant to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, all juvenile executions are cruel and unusual punishment! The Court also held that juveniles are categorically less culpable than the average criminal.
The Court in Roper relies on its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, another 5-4 decision, which held that the execution of a mentally retarded person was cruel and unusual punishment. Prior to that decision, there was no constitutional prohibition in the United States against executing a mentally retarded or mentally handicapped offender. The Court in Adkins also used that evolving standards argument noting the mental and experiential limitations of a mentally retarded person would make them less culpable than the average criminal. It should be noted that the Court in that case did not define the boundaries of mental retardation. Apparently that is left that to the individual state jurisdictions to determine.
From a precedent standpoint, it could be argued that the U.S. Supreme Court had no choice but to declare the execution of juveniles as unconstitutional after looking at and comparing its reasoning in Adkins. However, Justice Breyer was in the minority in Adkins and the majority in Roper and Justice OConnor was in the minority in Roper and the majority in Adkins . Predictability is not always a strong suit in the Supreme Court.
Both decisions are very enlightening and interesting to read. They both illustrate how the U.S. Supreme Court is struggling with smaller issues within the death penalty itself. In this authors opinion, the United States Supreme Court will, within several years, have to face that larger issue of the death penalty itself, as more and more states, like Illinois, put all executions on moratorium.
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Posted By: Darcie Shinberger, University Relations
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