In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court held that execution of a youth who was less than 16 years old at the time of the crime was in violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 1988). The Court relied on an analysis of society's evolving standards of decency to conclude that the juvenile death penalty was in violation of the protections guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
The Thompson Court measured society's evolving standards of decency through a consideration of four factors, which were relative legislative enactments, jury sentencing statistics, the views of national and international organizations and the Court's own independent analysis of whether the juvenile death penalty fulfilled the intended purposes of the punishment.
However, the four factors did not become the standard measure of society's view of the death penalty for juveniles. In fact, shortly after Thompson was decided, the Supreme Court declined the opportunity to raise the death penalty prohibition age from 15 to 16 or 17 (Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 1989). Justice Scalia looked primarily to state statutes to measure the country's evolving standards of decency and seemingly abandoned the other three measures the Court applied in Thompson. However, the Supreme Court returned to the four-pronged test of evolving standards of decency in 2002 when it outlawed the execution of mentally retarded offenders (Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 2002).
In Simmons v. Roper in 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court applied the Atkins(Thompson) four-pronged test and overturned a juvenile death sentence on the grounds that a new consensus had emerged since Stanford in 1989. The Missouri Supreme Court concluded that "The Supreme Court of the United States would hold that the execution of persons for crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age violates the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
Using the findings in Atkins as its benchmark, the Missouri Supreme Court found that legislative change in the country since Stanford was consistently in the direction of barring the imposition of the death penalty for offenders under age 18. The court went on to report statistics that supported the rarity of juvenile executions imposed by juries--finding that in the 22 states that allow juvenile executions, only six states have actually carried out an execution since Stanford.
Looking for a national and international consensus, the Missouri Supreme Court identified a large number of professional and faith-based groups that have called for the end of the juvenile death penalty; they also pointed to some recently collected data in which only 34 percent of Missourians supported the death penalty for juveniles. Finally, writing for the majority of the court, Judge Stith found that because of the "lesser culpability and developing nature of the adolescent mind," the retribution and deterrent purposes of the death penalty are not well-served by executing offenders under 18 years old. The Missouri court referenced the existence of a large number of studies that document the "lesser ability of teenagers to reason."
Psychology's role in the debate
While the Missouri findings and ruling apply only to that state's adjudication process in juvenile murder cases, the language in Simmons asks the U.S. Supreme Court to rely on Missouri's analysis to outlaw the juvenile death penalty as a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.
In a future case, the U.S. Supreme Court could agree with Missouri's application of the Atkins formula to bar the juvenile death penalty or, alternatively, it could continue to uphold executions for offenders 16 years of age or older. Psychologists can play a role in the juvenile death penalty debate in several ways.
First, psychologists can continue to bring forth existing and new data on the limits of adolescent reasoning, judgment and decision-making. Second, psychologists and their various professional organizations can publish and submit well-articulated positions on the profession's view of the juvenile death penalty. Third, psychologists can produce new research results examining "evolving standards of decency." Although these data may not be dispositive in the federal courts as they try to measure the consensus on the juvenile death penalty, this information is likely to be of interest to the state courts, state legislatures and perhaps the U.S. Congress.