Imagine a world where an individuals every act and decision is evaluated, scrutinized and either approved or denied. There are rules that exist besides the governmental law and there are consequences beyond those in the law that apply to this person specifically. Furthermore, there are certain rights and privileges that do not apply to this individual. No, this is not the life of a person living in a society that follows a dictatorship or monarchy; this is the life of a child. Specifically, this is the life of a child under the age of eighteen in the United States of America. While the consequences for juveniles under eighteen may differ from state to state, the lives they lead and the limitations on their rights are similar. Therefore, it would be unjustified to uphold juveniles to the same consequences as adults who have the benefit of life experience, rights and privileges that have helped develop them into fully competent adults. It would further violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to uphold a juvenile to the same level of culpability as an adult for a crime he could not fully understand.
The decision in Roper has revolutionized the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles. First, this Comment will analyze the relevant facts in the case as they relate to the majority decision of the opinion. Next, the historic background and cases on the death penalty in this country will be presented. Following, an analysis will be done of the opinion in the Roper case. Last, the implications on past, present and future cases with regards to the Roper decision will be reviewed.
II.STATEMENT OF THE CASE
While Christopher Simmons was still in high school at the age of seventeen, he committed murder and was sentenced to death. Simmons discussed his plans of killing with two of his friends. His plan was to commit burglary, tie up the victim, and throw the victim off a bridge. After breaking into the home of Shirley Crook, Simmons and his friend duct taped and bound Crook, put her into her minivan and drove to the state park. They then led her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River and threw her from the bridge into the waters below. The next afternoon Crook’s dead body was found.
The day after, Simmons was arrested. He waived his rights to an attorney and confessed to murder. Simmons was charged with burglary, kidnapping, stealing and murder in the first degree. Due to Simmons’ age, under Missouri law, he was tried as an adult. The jury returned a verdict of murder and the state sought the death penalty, submitting that the murder “involved depravity of mind and was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman.” The defense submitted that Simmons’ age should make a difference in his sentence because juveniles like Simmons do not have certain rights since the legislatures decided that juveniles were not responsible enough to handle such responsibilities as drinking and serving on juries. The defense did not call any witnesses in the guilt phase of the trial and the jury recommended the death penalty which was imposed by the trial judge.
Following the judgment, Simmons’ new counsel moved to set aside the conviction on the basis of ineffective assistance at trial and called Simmons’ friends, neighbors and clinical psychologists who evaluated Simmons, to testify. Witnesses proclaimed that Simmons was immature, impulsive and susceptible to being manipulated or influenced. Experts further testified that Simmons was performing poorly at school, came from a difficult home environment and had dramatic changes in behavior.
The trial court, however, did not grant postconviction relief and the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed. Simmons was also denied a writ of habeas corpus by the federal courts. After Simmons had exhausted all relief options, Atkins v. Virginia was decided. Thus, a new petition for state postconviction relief was filed on Simmons’ behalf on the basis of the Atkins decision and the Missouri Supreme Court agreed. Following, Simmons’ sentence was changed to “life imprisonment without eligibility for probation, parole, or release except by act of the Governor.” The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and affirmed the decision.
III.LEGAL BACKGROUND OF ROPER V. SIMMONS
Even though the first time the death penalty was imposed on juveniles in the United States was in 1642, the subject did not come up for judicial review until Bell v. Ohio in 1978 and even then it was only focused on mitigating factors. In a concurrent case, Lockett v. Ohio, it was held that the Eighth Amendment permits any evidence in mitigation of a death sentence even though it is not specifically mentioned in an applicable statute. Thus, the plurality in Bell, basing its decision on the Lockett opinion, reversed the sentence in Bell and sent the case back to the Ohio courts. However, the substantive issue of the death penalty was not resolved until later cases presented the opportunity.
That opportunity came in 1988 in Thompson v. Oklahoma where a decision in sentencing juveniles to death was reached. Thompson’s death sentence was overruled by a five to three vote, issuing an opinion holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for those who commit their crimes while under the age of sixteen. For the first time, the issue of juvenile culpability, retribution and deterrence and how it related to the death penalty was argued in absolute terms in drawing the line on the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles under a specific age. The plurality stated that for the same reasons that juveniles are not given the same rights and privileges as an adult in society, precludes their conduct from being morally reprehensible in the same way for certain actions. From that decision, the Supreme Court made a silent vow to “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” as new studies and revelations were made in congruence with the Eighth Amendment and the juvenile death penalty in the future.
However, no case would stand out as much as Stanford v. Kentucky in shaping the hard boundaries of the juvenile death sentence and influencing decisions for the next fifteen years. Although much more than just a decision that found it not unconstitutional to sentence sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to death, the dissent by Justice Brennan with whom Justice Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens joined, provided evidence that would later be used to rule that the death penalty for anyone under the age of eighteen would be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In Stanford, it was said that adolescents were impulsive, vulnerable, less self-disciplined and had a significantly diminished capacity to think in long-range terms or to control their conduct.
Furthermore, because society in this country is paternalistic towards youth, it forces them to depend on family, school and the social system, which in turn should also bear responsibility for the actions of juveniles who are not theoretically free to make their own choices like adults. It is argued that society has drawn a line at eighteen, where an individual is thought to be able to develop cognitive and reasoning abilities, and acquire enough experience from life to make value judgments and become responsible for his actions. Moreover, eighteen is thought to be a generous number because it is believed that some of the most troubled juveniles do not mature until the early twenties.
The dissent in Stanford agreed that under both the proportionality analysis of retributive justice and deterrence, the death penalty falls short of being justified under the Constitution. Because juveniles lack responsibility for their crimes as stated earlier, the misproportionality of the injury caused and the juvenile’s culpability makes it disproportionate to the offender’s blameworthiness and is thus not justly deserved. Likewise, deterrence fails for juvenile offenders because while deterrence relies on rational beings calculating their actions on gains and losses, juveniles do not generally have the ability to do such a cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, because juveniles have a chance to become responsible adults with time and treatment, and because they do not have the required culpability for proper retribution and deterrence to apply, it would violate contemporary standards of decency to sentence those under eighteen to death.
While the dissent in Stanford played a large role in making the case for juvenile offenders’ lack of culpability, the Atkins majority opinion as to the unconstitutionality of applying the death penalty to the mentally retarded solidified the general consensus that those who were not morally culpable for their crimes could not be eligible for the death penalty. Diminished culpability is inherent in those who are mentally retarded and does not justify the form of retribution that is seeked in the death penalty especially because even the average murdered does not have the culpability needed to warrant the death penalty. Furthermore, because deterrence uses the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that makes the mentally retarded less morally culpable for their offenses, it will not act to lessen the amount of offenses committed by this specific group of people who have reduced ability to alter their conduct regardless of the penalty involved.
IV.ANALYSIS OF ROPER V. SIMMONS
A. The Roper Opinion
The Atkins opinion with the dissent in Stanford aided the decision that would overrule Stanford and halt all impositions of the death penalty on juveniles as provided by the Roper opinion. First, the majority in Roper reasoned that evidence was provided that juveniles are viewed by society as “categorically less culpable than the average criminal,” as Atkins had viewed the mentally retarded. This reasoning was based on three differences between a class of juveniles and adults: lack of maturity which warrants fewer rights and privileges, increased susceptibility to outside influence and pressure, and an undeveloped character. Simmons was found to be immature, impulsive, and susceptible to being manipulated or influenced. These circumstances would be enough to constitute the characteristics that are classic in juveniles and are the basis for their diminished sense of culpability. Therefore, the severity of the crime would never be able to overpower the mitigating arguments of the juvenile’s immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true corruption, and thus should require a sentence other than death.
Thus, the majority opinion in Roper recognized that neither retribution nor deterrence would be accomplished by sentencing Simmons to death. Simmons was a juvenile and thus had diminished moral culpability for retribution purposes. Deterrence was also found to have the same underlying factor of culpability as to its inefficiency in its effect on those with diminished culpability. Due to these reasons, instituting the death penalty on juveniles would “extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity,” as it is attributed to Simmons and juveniles under eighteen in general.
Furthermore, Roper reasoned that it was difficult for even expert psychologists to determine whether a juvenile under eighteen contains all the characteristics of one who is less culpable and one who in rare circumstances is forever corrupted. Therefore, because even professionals cannot determine the difference, it would be unfair to ask juries to use such information and determine through mitigating factors which juveniles are fully culpable for their crimes.
B. Roper’s Implication on Culpability
The main issues in the Roper opinion that trigger concern is the problem of the “mature” juvenile on one side of the argument and the issue of imperfect and almost impossible diagnosis of juvenile culpability discussed by the Roper majority. Thus, there are major flaws in Justice O’Connor’s dissent which argues that because some legislatures have concluded that seventeen-year-olds are mature enough to deserve the death penalty, it is thus justified. Furthermore, her reasoning that juries can accurately assess a juvenile’s maturity and culpability when weighing mitigating factors is against all proposed evidence.
First, according to Stanford, a juvenile is influenced by family, school and the social environment in a drastically different way than an average adult and these factors do not give a juvenile similar rights to make his own choices like adults. Due to this, the line to certain rights has been drawn at eighteen and attests to juvenile development of cognitive and reasoning abilities and life experience in order to become responsible for their actions as adults.
The Roper majority put juveniles like Simmons into a class and marked them as immature, impulsive, and susceptible to being manipulated or influenced, which fit exactly into a group that has been labeled as unable to be fully culpable for their crimes and thus disables retribution and deterrence purposes. The dissent in Stanford expressly stated that a juvenile’s diminished ability to be culpable is a reflection on the paternalistic society which in effect should take on some of the burden of a juvenile’s actions. While this reason alone does not discredit Justice O’Connor’s argument that at least some seventeen-year-olds can be held to be mature and fully culpable for their crimes, the problem of determining culpability as the majority points out exacts the main reason why sentencing juveniles under eighteen to death is inherently flawed.
The Roper opinion adds substance in its decision, distinguishing itself from prior decisions on the death penalty, by making it clear that even trained psychologists cannot determine the moral culpability of juveniles. This makes the legislatures conviction of seventeen-year-olds presumptive upon the assessment of a juvenile by juries who have no training in determining such characteristics, especially not a higher training than that of trained psychologist’s who even have problems determining the same type of conclusion as well.
On a qualified public policy implication, it would be unjustified to permit a class of people who are generally known to have reduced culpability to become vulnerable to the death penalty when a mistake in such a decision is readily probable in order to sentence a qualified few. Juries are not experts and legislatures are not psychologists, and even if they were, they would still have problems adjudicating whether certain juveniles have the moral culpability to have their crimes qualified for the death penalty. Thus, the only way to keep the Eighth Amendment sacred and meaningful is to “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” and use modern research and conclusions to understand culpability. That meaning has to be upheld with the most stringent of requirements and certainties before taking away a human life in the name of retribution or deterrence.
The main purposes of the death penalty have been to provide for retribution to society and deterrence of future crimes. Unless one or both can be satisfied, it would be against the Eighth Amendment and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment to impose such a punishment. It is not that imposing the death penalty on a few morally culpable juveniles would be against the Eighth Amendment, but rather that the inability to accurately assess the culpability of juveniles under eighteen that makes the process unjust and creates a danger of sentencing those that have a diminished culpability for their crime. The Atkins court has determined that such is prevalent as it applies to the mentally retarded and now it has been recognized that the same applies to juveniles under eighteen as a class.
Thus, youth under the age of eighteen constitute more than a chronological factor when sentencing a person to punishment for a crime; rather it constitutes an understanding that youth have mental characteristics that make them less culpable for their crimes. These characteristics are fostered by the society as their rights are limited, their privileges are few and these are the years where they are defined as children to grow and develop into responsible adults. Thus, society needs to take the responsibility and safeguard both the foundations of the Constitution and young innocence from being extinguished in the name of uncertain retribution and unqualified deterrence.