The Supreme Court has previously ruled to permit the execution of juveniles who were 16 years or older at the time of their offenses (Stanford v. Kentucky, 1989). In contrast, the Missouri Supreme Court recently commuted the death sentence of a defendant--who was 17 years old at the time of offense--to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Relying on the rationale underlying the Supreme Court's recent ruling that the execution of mentally retarded offenders was unconstitutional (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002), the court argued that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is falling rapidly into disfavor both nationally and internationally and that new research suggests that juveniles, like those with mental retardation, have limited reasoning and decision-making skills (Simmons v. Roper, 2003). The state has appealed the commutation, objecting to the state supreme court's failure to follow the Stanford ruling; the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal and will consequently revisit the constitutionality of executing juveniles (Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633).
The review of the constitutionality of juvenile execution provides an opportunity for psychologists to contribute their expertise to the Supreme Court. Psychologists can assist by continuing research that examines the limitations of adolescent decision-making and by producing new ways to examine "evolving standards of decency" associated with society's changing views on the execution of juvenile offenders.
Recent research addressing other issues connected with trying juveniles as adults and the death penalty may influence public attitudes toward trying juveniles as adults and may also inform the Supreme Court's deliberations on juvenile execution more specifically. For example, research by social psychologist Craig Haney, PhD, finds that the capital voir dire procedure--in which jurors who express their opposition to the death penalty during jury selection are removed from the venire--results in a more conviction-prone jury because the resulting jury is demographically restricted. (Blacks, women and democrats are less likely to support the death penalty than are whites, men and republicans.)
Although Haney suggests that these procedural effects are unique in death penalty cases, emerging evidence suggests that these same types of procedures occur in noncapital trials involving juveniles who are waived to adult criminal court.
Our analysis of voir dire transcripts from juvenile waiver cases confirmed that people who expressed concern about trying juveniles as adults were removed from the panel without any attempt at rehabilitating their attitudes (Danielsen, Levett & Kovera, 2004).
Moreover, blacks are more likely to oppose trying juveniles as adults than are any other racial or ethic group (Levett, Danielsen & Kovera, 2004), and thus are more likely to be excluded from the jury. Because most juvenile defendants on trial in adult courts are black, the cognizable group that is excluded from the jury is also the group that is most likely to be tried in adult court.
Although the consequences of these voir dire procedures in juvenile waiver trials have yet to be empirically tested, it is probable that removing this group from the final jury can compromise the fairness and impartiality of the final jury, similar to the biasing consequences of removing anti-death penalty jurors in capital cases. This effect may be amplified in capital juvenile waiver trials, given that such a procedure requires removing jurors that hold either anti-death penalty or anti-juvenile waiver attitudes.
Once a jury is selected, other research suggests that jury members perceive a juvenile tried in adult court to be more dangerous than either a juvenile tried in juvenile court or an adult who commits the same crime (Tang et al., 2004). Similarly, jurors perceive the offense to be more serious if the juvenile is tried in adult court compared with a juvenile tried in juvenile court or an adult tried for the same crime. Because jurors may consider these factors when determining guilt and sentence, juveniles could receive harsher punishments than adults who commit the same crimes based simply on the prejudicial belief that juveniles tried in adult court are more dangerous than adult offenders.
By examining and understanding society's perceptions of serious juvenile offenders, in addition to fully comprehending the potential bias of the procedural aspects of the trial, psychologists can help provide data that would enable the Supreme Court to fully consider whether the execution of juveniles is a just practice.