In 1993, Christopher Simmons, a 17-year-old boy from Fenton, Missouri, received the death penalty and found himself fighting for his life on death row. Similar cases happened across the United States, from Texas to Georgia.
This issue sparked national debate, emphasizing the legal and ethical challenges of giving the death penalty to minors under 18. This raises the question: Should a 16-year-old minor in Alabama face the same capital punishment as an adult in New York?
Understanding Capital Punishment on Juveniles
Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the most severe judicial punishment a person can receive. In states like Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, courts reserve this extreme sanction to only those who have committed horrific violent crimes.
Over the last few decades, the legal landscape surrounding the execution of juvenile offenders has significantly shifted. The U.S. Supreme Court has been repeatedly asked to address the constitutionality of death penalty cases involving minors. One strong influence was the American Bar Association's stand on these matters.
It is important to note that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court interpreted "cruel and unusual" punishment as penalties that are not proportioned and graduated to the charge or otherwise excessive. This includes punishments that don't consider the individual's degree of culpability, including the impact of the perpetrator's mental illness.
Previous Decisions on Juvenile Death Penalty Laws
The history of death penalty law has a long history in the U.S. The hanging of Thomas Granger in 1642 was the earliest recorded execution of a minor. At 16 years old, Granger was executed after he confessed to crimes of bestiality.
In 1885, the youngest offender ever executed in the U.S. was a 10-year-old boy named James Arcene. He participated in a robbery and murder at the tender age of 10. The Arkansas court imposed the death penalty and executed Arcene.
In 1927, a 13-year-old boy from Florida, Fortune Ferguson, was executed for committing rape.
In 1988, the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma challenged the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders. In this case, William Wayne Thompson was 15 years old when the court sentenced him to death. Capital punishment was given after Thompson actively participated in the gruesome murder of his former brother-in-law. Thompson appealed based on the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court decision stated that there is a common understanding amongst states that the execution of minors younger than 16 years of age goes against the expected standards of decency. This decision was crucial in making it unconstitutional to execute individuals under the age of 16.
But in 1989, in the case of Stanford v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty on offenders ages 16 and 17 at the time of the crime was constitutional. But, in the same case, they declared it unconstitutional to apply capital punishment for minors under 16 years old.
Juvenile Justice and the Death Penalty: Current Caselaw
The landmark case of Roper v. Simmons overruled the earlier decision in Stanford v. Kentucky. In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that imposing the death penalty on minor offenders is unconstitutional. This applies to those who were 15 to 17 years old at the time of the commission of the crime.
The ruling cited the cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution's Eighth Amendment. When arriving at this decision, the Court looked at the national consensus against the death penalty on minors.
The main observation of the High Court was based on the states which prohibited the death penalty on minors. Even in states where legislatures allow death sentences for juvenile offenders, execution was rare. The Court ruling affected 72 juvenile offenders on death row who were 18 years old at the time of their crime.
State Laws on the Statutory Minimum Age for Capital Punishment
It should be noted that, although the Roper v. Simmons (2005) case declared it unconstitutional to execute minors nationwide, some state legislatures haven't changed their state laws regarding this matter. This does not mean that these states can execute juvenile offenders. It only means that some state legislatures haven't changed the language of their laws. A United States Supreme Court ruling takes precedence over state law.
Execution of Juveniles: International Law and State Law
Under international human rights law, imposing the death penalty on minors younger than 18 years old is illegal. However, there are still some countries that execute juvenile offenders. Since 1990, Amnesty International has documented 149 executions in 10 countries. The list of countries is as follows:
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Saudi Arabia
- South Sudan
- United States of America
Learn More About the Complexities of Juvenile Capital Cases: Seek Legal Advice
The death penalty is capital punishment, the highest penalty that the justice system can impose on an individual. Given the severity of this punishment, having a strong and capable legal representative is essential.
If you or someone you know is facing a death penalty case, it is best to talk to a criminal defense attorney. They will guide you through the intricacies of the laws surrounding your case. This will give you a better understanding of your rights and the available options to secure them. They can give you the guidance and clarity needed in this challenging time.