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Facts about capital punishment

Part 6: Executing child criminals (Cont'd):
Status, Court decisions, Opinion polls

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Status in the North America by the end of 2002, before the 2005 court decision:

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in the United States at the end of 2002:

bulletSixteen states set 18 as the minimum age at the time of a commission of a crime for a person to be eligible for the death penalty.
bulletFive states have 17 years as the minimum age (FL, GA, NH, NC, TX).
bulletSeventeen set 16 as the minimum age (AL, AZ, AR, DE, ID, KY, LA, MS, MO, NV, OK, PA, SC, SD, UT, VA, WY). 1,2

There have only been 22 juvenile executions carried out between 1973 to 2003. Of these, 18 (81%) were in Texas, Virginia, or Oklahoma. Texas alone is responsible for 13 executions. 3 The trend appears to be towards an gradual elimination of juvenile executions in the U.S., except in Texas. 4

Canada abandoned the death penalty, for ordinary crimes, in 1976. However, in 1959, Steven Truscott, then 14 years of age, was charged with the murder of a 12 year old girl, Lynne Harper. He was tried and convicted. At the age of 16, he was sentenced to hang. Fortunately, the sentence was never carried out. He served ten years before being paroled. Recent evidence has emerged that proves beyond reasonable doubt that he is innocent of the crime. He has been exonerated by the courts.

Rulings on the execution of child criminals by U.S. courts:

The U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Missouri, and the high courts of other states have made several rulings on this topic in recent decades:

bullet1988: Execution banned where criminal was 15 years of age or younger: In the U.S. Supreme Court case Thompson v. Oklahoma, a boy had been convicted of having actively participating in a brutal murder when he was 15 years of age. The court ruled that capital punishment in the U.S. was unconstitutional if applied to a child who was 15 years of age or younger at the time of the offense. 5 Justice Stevens concluded:
"... that the 'cruel and unusual punishments' prohibition of the Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the execution of a person who was under 16 years of age at the time of his or her offense....In determining whether the categorical Eighth Amendment prohibition applies, this Court must be guided by the 'evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,' [Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101], 6 and, in so doing, must review relevant legislative enactments and jury determinations and consider the reasons why a civilized society may accept or reject the death penalty for a person less than 16 years old at the time of the crime." 7
Justice Stevens noted that, at the time:
bullet19 states and the Federal Government theoretically allowed capital punishment of offenders of any age. However, 18 states specified a minimum age at the time of the offense before the death penalty could be imposed. All of the latter states specified 16 years.
bulletThat age was "consistent with the views expressed by respected professional organizations, by other nations that share the Anglo-American heritage, and by the leading members of the Western European community" at the time.
bulletOnly five of the 1,393 persons sentenced to death in the U.S. between 1982 and 1986 were 15 years or younger at the time of the offense.
bulletChildren should be regarded as having reduced culpability for their actions, when compared to an adult. This is because they have relatively less inexperience, education, and intelligence. [The definition of "intelligence" that Justice Stevens used in the ruling is not known]. In addition, children are much more apt to be motivated by emotion or peer pressure. 7
bullet1989: Execution OK if criminal was 16 or 17 years of age: In the case of Stanford v. Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court, allowed the executions of two males who were children at the time they committed murder. Kevin Stanford was about 17 years, 4 months of age. Heath Wilkins was about 16 years, 6 months of age. The vote was 5 to 4 -- a common result on rulings involving morality and ethics.

As noted above, an unusually large number of religious and secular organizations filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in support of Stanford

Justice Scalia wrote the majority report for the court. He noted that. at the time:
bullet "...at least 281 offenders under 18, and 126 under 17, have been executed in this country."
bullet"Of the 37 States that permit capital punishment, 15 decline to impose it on 16-year-olds and 12 on 17-year-olds. This does not establish the degree of national agreement this Court has previously thought sufficient to label a punishment cruel and unusual."
bullet"From 1982 through 1988...out of 2,106 total death sentences, only 15 were imposed on individuals who were 16 or under when they committed their crimes, and only 30 on individuals who were 17 at the time of the crime."
bullet"Public opinion polls, the views of interest groups, and the positions of professional associations are too uncertain a foundation for constitutional law. Also insufficient is socioscientific or ethicoscientific evidence tending to show that capital punishment fails to deter 16- and 17-year-olds because they have a less highly developed fear of death, and fails to exact just retribution because juveniles, being less mature and responsible, are less morally blameworthy." 8
bullet2002: Court refuses to revisit Stanford case: The U.S. Supreme Court was bitterly divided -- as is its usual states on matters related to ethics and morality -- when presented with the option of considering whether to review a lower court conviction. They voted 5 to 4 to not accept the case. It involved Kevin Nigel Stanford, a Kentucky youth who was 17 when he abducted, raped, shot, and killed a 20 year old woman. This was the same individual that they reviewed 13 years earlier in Stanford v. Kentucky. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the minority and was joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. He called teen execution a "shameful practice.....The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."
bullet2003-AUG: Missouri court rules on case of 17 year old murderer: "Christopher Simmons murdered Shirley Cook in 1993, when he was 17 years [and five months] old." After a robbery attempt, he bound and gagged the woman, and pushed her off a railroad trestle, causing here death. Prior to the robbery, he told his accomplice that they could get get away with murder because they were juveniles.  He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death." He argued that execution for a murder that he committed at the age of 17 would be cruel and unusual punishment, and thus prohibited by the 8th and 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He asked the Supreme Court of Missouri to set aside his execution and commute his sentence to life imprisonment without eligibility for probation, parole or release. Judge Laura Stith of the Missouri court ruled that:
"In the 14 years since Stanford was decided, a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders. No state has lowered the age for execution from 18 to 17 or 16, five more states have banned the practice of executing juvenile offenders through legislative action and a sixth state has banned such a practice through a judicial decision. Only six states have executed a juvenile offender in the past 14 years. Opposition to the juvenile death penalty by professional, social and religious organizations, both nationally and internationally, has grown since Stanford. Similar to the reasons set out in Atkins in regard to offenders who are mentally retarded, neither retribution nor deterrence provides an effective rationale for imposing the juvenile death penalty, and the risk of wrongful execution of juveniles is enhanced....This Court concludes that the United States Supreme Court would hold that the execution of persons for crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age violates the evolving standards of decency and is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States constitution. This decision applies retroactively to persons whose cases are on collateral review."
Judge Price dissented. He believed that the state Supreme Court lacks the authority to overrule Stanford v. Kentucky.

Simmons' defense stressed the belief that juvenile executions are no longer a moral option. They based their argument, in part, on the diminishing number of states with laws that permit juvenile executions, and the rarity of such sentences by juries. At the time of the Missouri court decision in 2004-AUG:
"...a total of sixteen states -- to which should be added federal civilian and military courts -- require a minimum age of 18 for imposition of the death penalty....If the twelve states and the District of Columbia that bar the death penalty entirely are added, the combined total is twenty-eight states that prohibit juvenile executions."

The State of Missouri appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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bullet 2004: U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear Roper v. Simmons: On 2004-JAN-26, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Missouri case described above. The case is Roper v. Simmons, case no. 03-0633. The case was heard in the fall of 2004.

One additional piece of evidence has emerged in recent years. Researchers have determined that the human brain continues to develop during a person's teenage years, and only matures at about the age of 20.
bullet2005: U.S. Supreme Court declares execution of juvenile murders unconstitutional: By the usual 5 to 4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a juvenile killer -- i.e. a person convicted of murder who was under 18 years of age at the time of the offense.

At the time of the ruling: "30 States prohibit the juvenile death penalty, including 12 that have rejected it altogether and 18 that maintain it but, by express provision or judicial interpretation, exclude juveniles from its reach. Moreover, even in the 20 States without a formal prohibition, the execution of juveniles is infrequent." 9 The latter states are: AL, AZ, AR, DE, FL. GA, ID, KY, LA, MS, MO, NV, NH, NC, OK, PA, SC, TX, UT, and VA. This cancels the sentences of 72 convicted murderers on death rows around the country. The court also bars states from sentencing minors for future crimes.

The ruling stated that the "Court established the propriety and affirmed the necessity of referring to 'the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society' to determine which punishments are so disproportionate as to be 'cruel and unusual'." The main basis for their ruling is that the executions of juvenile criminals violate the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment which bans such punishment. They also cited the 14th amendment. This decision should raise the opinion that many Western democracies have had of the U.S. Some had severely criticized the U.S. for this practice. 10

The Family Research Council reacted negatively to the decision. They cited:
"... grave concerns such as states rights' and judges being moral arbitrators. One disturbing part of the majority opinion is that once again foreign courts and sentiment are cited to justify their decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, states, 'It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty...The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions."

The Family Research Council continued:
"Justice Antonin Scalia, in his brilliant dissent, highlights the hypocrisy of the Supreme Court by pointing out that it tends '(t)o invoke alien law when it agrees with one's own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, (and that) is not reasoned decision making, but sophistry.' Justice Scalia cites examples of foreign decisions that the majority ignores, including decisions that involve outlawing abortion and funding of religious schools. There is a dangerous trend in American courts with federal and state judges citing foreign precedent to justify radical decisions, e.g., of sodomy (Lawrence v. Texas) and gay 'marriage' (Goodridge v. Department of Health [in Massachusetts]). The U.S. judicial system should not rely on selective citations of foreign laws." 11
bullet2005-MAR-18: Condemnation of Court decision: The Fundamentalist Baptist Information Service condemned the "foolish judges" of the Supreme Court for ruling that it is unconstitutional for the state to execute murderers who are under 18 years of age at the time that they commit their crime. By tying their decision to the views of society, Justice Anthony Kennedy revealed:
"that his authority is not the U.S. Constitution but the shifting sand of public opinion. God established the death penalty for murder immediately after the flood and it has never been rescinded....(Genesis 9:6)...No exceptions were made for youth. In fact, the Bible specifically says that young rebels are subject to death. 'For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death...(Leviticus 20:9)'." 12

Public opinion polls:

The following polls indicate the problems that arise from Internet opinion sampling:

bulletThe Gallup Poll conducted a poll on 2002-MAY concerning the execution of juvenile murderers starting. Results were:
bullet26% favored execution.
bullet69% opposed execution.
bullet5% had no opinion. 13

N = 1,012. margin of error is within 3 percentage points.

bulletVote.com conducted a similar public opinion poll on their website  on 2002-AUG-31. Results were:
bullet78% of voters favored execution. The rationale provided by Vote.com was: "Murderers shouldn't be able to use age to limit punishment."
bullet22% opposed execution. The rational was: "People who are too young to vote, drink, or serve on a jury are clearly too young to face execution."

N = 13,525. Although the margin of error was less than one percentage point, the people who voted were self-motivated and are not necessarily a representative sample of American adults. Comparing this poll's data with those of the Gallup Poll would indicate that the Vote.com subjects do not represent a typical sample of the American public. This is a good indicator of the unreliability of Internet polls.

References used:

All of the following hyperlinks were active at the time this essay was written or updated. Some may be broken today.

  1. Diane Jennings, "Execution gets little notice despite youth of defendant," Dallas Morning News, at: http://www.dallasnews.com/
  2. "The Death Penalty in 2002: Year End Report," The Death Penalty Information Center, at: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/  You may need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  3. Bill Mears, "Supreme Court will revisit execution of teenage killers," CNN.com, 2004-JAN-26, at: http://edition.cnn.com/
  4. "Simmons v. Roper," Supreme Court of Missouri, (2003), at: http://www.osca.state.mo.us/
  5. Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 US 815 (1988)
  6. "Trop v. Dulles," U.S. Supreme Court, (1958), at: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/
  7. "Thompson v. Oklahoma," U.S. Supreme Court, (1988), at FindLaw: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/
  8. "Stanford v. Kentucky," U.S. Supreme Court, (1989), at: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/
  9. "Roper, Superintendent, Potosi Correctional Center v. Simmons, 03-633." U.S. Supreme Court, at: http://a257.g.akamaitech.net
  10. "U.S. bans executions of minors," Associated Press, 2005-MAR-01. Published in the Toronto Star, 2005-MAR-02, Page A13.
  11. "Supreme Court Once Again Cites Foreign Precedent," Washington Update, Family Research Council, 2005-MAR-02.
  12. "Foolish Judges," Friday News Notes, Fundamentalist Baptist Information Service, 2005-MAR-18.
  13. "The Death Penalty," PollingReport.com, at: http://www.pollingreport.com/

Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death Penalty > this essay

Copyright © 1995 to 2009, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2009-DEC-07

Author: Bruce A Robinson

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