We will write a custom Essay on Death Penalty: Juveniles and Mental Disabilities specifically for you
301 certified writers online
Severe mental disabilities and juvenile immaturity can result in functional impairments which can reduce the blameworthiness of the defendant. Consequently, the Eight Amendment should dismiss the death penalty for this category and state laws must implement recommendations of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychological Association, and the American Bar Association that ban the death sentence for juvenile and mentally retarded criminal offenders. Furthermore, having the judge make a pretrial determination will be helpful and less severe compared to having the issue tackled by a prejudiced capital jury at the penalty phase. Although capital juries represent public interests, most of them favor the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles and mentally retarded criminal offenders without considering other exonerating circumstances. On the contrary, trial judges take into consideration the public interest regarding the death penalty for juveniles and mentality retarded offenders more objectively than the jury.
Since 1990, a few nations (i.e. United States, Nigeria, Iran and Pakistan) have imposed the death penalty on offenders who committed crimes when they were mentally disabled or juvenile. Several incidents have recently taken place that (when taken into consideration) suggest it is time to reassess the legality of a juvenile death sentence. First of all, in Atkins vs. Virginia (2002) case, the US Supreme Court upheld that the death penalty imposed on offenders with mental disorders violated the United States Constitution. Some of the justifications provided by the Court for the prohibition relating to the death penalty are imposed on juveniles. Second, following the Court ruling on Atkins vs. Virginia case, three Supreme Court judges proposed reevaluation of the statutory status of juvenile death sentence, a move which implied substantial discomfort with the current provisions of the law. Finally, following the capture of a serial sniper (aged 17 years) in the Washington precinct, prosecutors sought permission to have the case conducted in Virginia since the state allows juvenile death penalty (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p. 1009; Ferguson, 2005, p.450).
There is no doubt that the juvenile death sentence is a crucial topic in juvenile crime policy. However, this paper focuses on whether juvenile and mentally disabled criminal offenders deserve the death penalty like grown-ups who have committed similar offenses. Prominent murder cases, such as the one involving Lionel Tate (a 14-year-old kid) who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his friend in a brawling game, have revitalized public debate regarding juvenile death sentences. Nonetheless, questions regarding the suitable penalty for juvenile offenders have emerged in several minor cases such as nonaggressive offenses like drug peddling (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p. 1009). Therefore, this paper will review relevant literature and theories to explore the criminal liability of juveniles and mentally disabled offenders.
Mitigation in the Criminal Law
The principle of penal proportionality advocates that fair criminal sentence should correspond to the degree of damage caused by the offender as well as the culpability of the offender. Consequently, the question that merit consideration is how juvenile immaturity and mental disability of the lawbreakers apply to their culpability and which sentence is appropriate for their offenses. To answer this question, we must evaluate the developmental aptitudes and processes pertinent to juvenile criminal choices as well as the conditions that minimize blameworthiness in criminal law (Scott & Steinberg, 2003, p. 799; Ferguson, 2005, p.450).
The public discourse regarding the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles and mentally disabled offenders is partly ill-informed given that it normally focuses on excuses rather than exonerating evidence. It is often presumed that the only substitute to adult retribution of juvenile (or mentally challenged) offenders is no punishment at all. However, we posit that the developmental naivety of youth lessens their blameworthiness and validates more compassionate punishment. However, this should not be taken as a foundation for defense. The public (justifiably) seeks to ensure that mentally challenged and juvenile offenders are punished for their crimes to deter would-be offenders from engaging in similar criminal acts (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1010).
In addition, criminal law doctrine takes into consideration exonerating evidence in various ways when determining the gravity of the crimes as well as the appropriate punishment to be given. For instance, excuses like self-defense, insanity, and duress reveal that the offender can commit a criminal act but be less blameworthy than the adult criminal offenders. What’s more, the law of homicide acknowledges that the sentence for murder offense varies considerably concerning the culpability of the offender. For instance, an individual who commits murder as a result of emotional disorder is only guilty of manslaughter (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1010).
It has been proven that psychological naivety partly explains why juveniles partake in criminal acts. Consider the following incident. A teenager is socializing with his peers when one of his friends suddenly proposes that they mug a bystander to get money and buy alcohol. The teenager rarely undergoes a careful decision-making process but opts to partake in the act fearing that his status within the group will be compromised if he declines the suggestion. While a grown-up individual will consider the consequences of the criminal act, the teenager may not since he does not have the experience to effectively deal with the current situation. In addition, the teenager may opt to partake in the crime based on instant and tangible rewards of peer approval. The teenager rarely considers the lasting consequences associated with the criminal act (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1013).
Existing evidence shows that juveniles (just like the mentally ill offenders) are less blameworthy compared to adult offenders due to reduced decision-making capability (Ferguson, 2005, p.450). It appears that some judges have acknowledged this phenomenon to some extent. For instance, in Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1998), the Supreme Court brought up the issue of juvenile culpability when it banned the execution of teenagers who committed criminal acts before their 16th birthday. The Supreme judge concluded that the principle of proportionality would be violated if a death penalty was imposed on the juveniles. The Supreme Court ruling in the Thompson vs. Oklahoma case does not lend weight to scientific research regarding juveniles’ capabilities. Nevertheless, the Court’s ruling indirectly supports the notion that psychological naivety can adversely affect the ability of a juvenile to make sound decisions that mitigate criminal culpability (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1013).
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins case clearly emphasize the need to reconsider the imposition of capital sentence on mentally challenged offenders given that they might have committed the crime as a result of their mental condition: there are several issues that the Supreme Court pointed out in the ruling:
Because of their impairments… mentally retarded offenders have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others. There is… abundant evidence that they often act on impulse rather than pursuant to a premeditated plan, and that in group settings, they are followers rather than leaders. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions but diminish their personal culpability (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002, p. 2250).
What’s more, the immaturity of juvenile judgment (just like mentally retarded offenders) is naturally organic. However, immature judgment amongst juveniles (as opposed to persons with mental disabilities) is attributed to transitory developmental aspects and most teenagers will grow out of their propensity to make imprudent choices that are influenced by psychological factors (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1014).
Accuracy in Death Penalty Exclusion Issue
The judges have a higher propensity than juries to make accurate decisions in establishing whether the crime committed by the offender fulfilled the legal threshold for excluding the death sentence or the offender’s mental disability severely compromised his blameworthiness to the degree that the Eighth Amendment would be violated if a death penalty was imposed. This is basically a statutory issue (rather than a factual one) and its resolution entails analysis of clinical evidence and application of a statutory standard that may be well beyond the understanding of typical jurors. Judges are familiar with making pre-trial law/fact determinations of this type such as pre-trial hearings to dismiss for speedy trial reasons, aptitude to stand trial, and determination under Atkins vs. Virginia case to establish whether the defendant was mentally disabled when he committed the crime (Winick, 2009, p. 48; Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p.1013).
Judges have more experience than juries in establishing whether the mental illness of the defendant should disqualify him from the death penalty for various reasons. First, the selection process for juries in murder cases yields juries that favor the imposition of death sentence. Usually, potential jurors undergo an intricate voir dire process that aims to establish their opinions on death penalty and enables the prosecutor to eliminate all candidates with contrary opinions to the death penalty. In addition, the aptitude of capital juries to make a fair and impartial decision on the death exclusion matter is compromised by the negative perceptions of the public regarding mental illness. Compared to the trial judge, the jury may be more inclined to associate criminal acts with mental illness and vote in favor of a death sentence as the best way to punish the offender and safeguard the public from future harm. In many cases, the juries scarcely vote in favor of acquittal because of insanity possibly, basing their judgment on the apparent need to protect the public from the offender’s future criminal acts than on the normative doctrines expressed in the statutory insanity standard (Winick, 2009, p.53).
In addition, previous empirical studies reveal that the test for legal insanity has negligible sway on the jury’s verdicts. Furthermore, juries may experience similar dilemmas when making determinations since the requirements for excluding an offender from the death sentence based on his mental disabilities resembles the statutory insanity standard. On the contrary, judges (in spite of their personal prejudices against mentally retarded offenders) are more likely to transcend their prejudices and will appreciate that, should the offender be sentenced to life imprisonment, exempted from a death sentence, or convicted, the final court ruling will ultimately safeguard the public interests. However, previous empirical studies have shown that capital jurors (mostly in favor of death penalty) when asked to decide on life or death at the sentencing phase of the court proceedings usually lend credence to the ghastly evidence of the offense and the conclusion they have already made is that the offender deserves severe punishment. Consequently, they vote for death penalty without taking into account the mitigating factors such as mental illness and juvenile immaturity (Winick, 2009, p.53).
Get your first paper with 15% OFF
Burden of Persuasion
In establishing whether the mental illness of the defendant should disqualify him from the death penalty, the relevant issue is determining who should bear the burden of persuasion. The procedure for deciding the Atkins mental illness exclusion from death penalty again offers a relevant analogy. Given that the finding of mental illness has not been considered to be analogous with regard to the aspect of the fundamental offense, the defendant bears the burden of persuasion. Nonetheless, the standard of persuasion regarding the presence of mental illness should not transcend the superiority of the proof. The entire post-Atkins laws that address the burden of proof issue assign the burden to the offender. Even in the absence of relevant statutes, the courts concur that the offender bears the burden of persuasion. For instance, the Supreme Court of Indiana supported a state law that imposed the burden of persuasion on the offender to provide evidence regarding his mental disability by equating an Atkins determination to capability to stand trial. The Court’s decision was based on Medina vs. California (1992) case whereby the US Supreme Court upheld that assigning the burden to a criminal offender to provide evidence of mental illness was in harmony with the principles of fundamental justice (Winick, 2009, p.71; Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p. 1009).
What’s more, the typical elements that are applied in assigning burdens of persuasion (i.e. policy, probability and fairness issues) lean in the direction of assigning the burden of persuasion to the mentally retarded offender facing the death penalty. The fairness inquest lends credence to which party has better access to the relevant proof. Obviously, the defense is in a better position than the prosecutor to provide proof about the offender’s mental disabilities as well as the degree of its functional deficiency. Consequently, the principles of fairness are not violated when the burden of persuasion is placed on the offender (Winick, 2009, p.71).
The probability aspect lends credence to the degree to which the mental illness must be verified by the offender. Under this circumstance, it will merely be in isolated cases that mental disability will be so glaring to the level that the death penalty would be prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Consequently, concerns of probability uphold allocating the burden of persuasion to the offender. The policy factor lends weight to how the allocation of burden might influence the relevant policy considerations. Under this circumstance, the pertinent policies would embrace the robust public value of evading flawed execution as well as accomplishing the overall goals of criminal sanction (i.e. retributivist, prevention, and educative goals). Since the offender has better access to evidence regarding his mental status and can employ medical experts to help him collect and present such evidence at state expenditure, assigning the burden of persuasion to the offender will neither contravene the public interest in shunning unlawful execution nor weaken the goals of criminal punishment (Winick, 2009, p.71).
Standard of Proof
If the offender is assigned the burden of proof, superiority of the evidence threshold would appear to be the suitable measure for carrying out this burden. As a matter of fact, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit the placement of a standard that transcends the superiority of the proof. The US Supreme Court has ruled that a law imposing the burden of proof on the offender to provide flawless and substantial evidence of his ineptitude to face trial contravenes legal process because an amplified standard impermissibly can increase the probability of error (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p. 1009). With regard to mental retardation in Atkins case, many states use superiority of the evidence standard when they impose the burden of proof on criminal offenders. However, a few states have adopted a flawless and convincing evidence standard. For instance, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned a law that required criminal offenders to provide clear and convincing proof regarding their mental illness on the grounds that it would lead to the execution of other defendants who were truly mentally retarded (Winick, 2009, p.72).
Several incidents have recently taken place that (when taken into consideration) suggest it is time to reassess the legality of the juvenile death sentence. Severe mental illness can result in glaring functional impairments which can (considerably) reduce the blameworthiness of the defendant. Consequently, the Eight Amendment should dismiss the death penalty for this category and state laws should implement recommendations of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Bar Association which ban death sentences for offenders who suffered glaring mental illness at the time of the crime. Furthermore, having the judge make pretrial determination will be substantially helpful and less severe compared to having the issue handled by the prejudiced capital jury at the penalty phase (Winick, 2009, p.53). Although the juries represent public interests, most of them favor the imposition of death penalty for juveniles and mentally retarded criminal offenders without considering other exonerating circumstances. On the contrary, trial judges take into consideration the public interest regarding death penalty for juveniles and mentality retarded offenders more objectively than the jury.
Atkins v. Virginia, 122 S. Ct. 2242 (2002).
Ferguson, LC. (2005). The Implications of Developmental Cognitive Research on Evolving Standards of Decency and the Imposition of the Death Penalty on Juveniles. American University Law Review, 54(441), 441-482.
Scott, E., & Steinberg, L. (2003). Blaming Youth. Texas Law Review, 81,799–840.
Scott, E., & Steinberg, L. (2003). Less guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty. American Psychologist, 58(12), 1009-1018.
Winick, BJ. (2009). Determining when Severe Mental Illness Should Disqualify a Defendant From Capital Punishment. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.