The death penalty, although legal and practiced in many states, is reserved for the most heinous violent crimes. But what happens to minors who are convicted of such crimes? Is there still a presumption that they can be rehabilitated or are they subject to execution as well? The short answer is that juveniles (those under the age of 18) may not be put to death for crimes that would be capital offenses in adult court, even though juveniles still may be transferred to adult court for certain offenses. But this wasn't always the case.
The following is a summary of the law with respect to the application of capital punishment to minors in the juvenile justice system.
Juveniles and the Death Penalty: Current Caselaw
In a sensitive and controversial case that had repercussions well beyond the bench, a divided (5-4) U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that executing a convicted murderer whose capital crime was committed at the age of 17 constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment as it was a "disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18." In making its decision, the Supreme Court noted the "overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty" and that the U.S. "is the only country in the world that continues to give sanction to the juvenile penalty."
The 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons overruled an earlier Court decision (Stanford v. Kentucky). Further, because the ruling applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, it rendered several state laws unconstitutional. This led several states (12 in all) to reverse sentences for 72 prisoners on death row who were under 18 at the time of committing capital crimes. In 2005, at least 20 of 38 states with the death penalty had permitted its application to offenders less than 18 years old.
Previous Supreme Court Decisions on Juvenile Death Penalty Laws
Prior to this decision, there had been two key court cases that had laid the foundation for juveniles to receive the death penalty.
In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Court overturned a death sentence for a juvenile who was 15 years old at the time he was involved in a murder. The opinion cited the failure of the state of Oklahoma to stipulate a minimum age for execution. This case also set the minimum age of 16 at which a juvenile can be executed. In Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), the Court ruled that it was constitutional for a state to execute a juvenile who was between the ages of 16 and 18 at the time of the offense but unconstitutional if the juvenile was under 16.
Although there have been a number of challenges to the minimum age of 16 for juvenile execution set by Thompson v. Oklahoma, such as State v. Stone (LA, 1988), Flowers v. State, (AL, 1991) and Allen v. State (FL, 1994), these challenges have only gone as far as the court of appeals.
More than 360 juveniles have been executed over the years, beginning with Thomas Graunger, who was executed in 1642 in Massachusetts. After 1990, the only known countries that execute juveniles are Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Learn More About Juveniles and the Death Penalty by Talking to an Attorney
Death is the most severe punishment that the government can hand out in a case, and, as this article points out, there are restrictions on when it can be applied. If you or someone you know is facing charges involving a capital crime, the death penalty could be a possible outcome. That's why it's critical to have a strong legal team to advocate on your behalf. Reach out to a local criminal defense attorney to learn about your rights and options.