History of the Juvenile Death Penalty

Thomas Graunger, the first juvenile known to be executed in America, was tried and found guilty of bestiality in 1642 in Plymouth Colony, MA (Hale, 1997). Since that execution, 361 individuals have been executed for crimes committed when they were juveniles (Streib, 2000).

The Supreme Court decided its first juvenile case—Kent v. United States,6 in which it limited the waiver discretion of juvenile courts—in 1966. Initially, juvenile courts had enjoyed broad discretion in deciding when to waive cases to criminal court. However, waiver decisions were not consistent across States, and legislatures began to reform the process by standardizing judicial decisionmaking. Kent held that juveniles were entitled to a hearing, representation by counsel, access to information upon which the waiver decision was based, and a statement of reasons justifying the waiver decision. The court also laid out a number of factors that the juvenile court judge must consider in making the waiver decision (Evans, 1992), including:

  • The seriousness and type of offense and the manner in which it was committed.

  • The sophistication and maturity of the juvenile as determined by consideration of his or her homelife, environmental situation, emotional attitude, and pattern of living.

  • The juvenile's record and history.

  • The prospects for protecting the public and rehabilitating the juvenile.

Juveniles were thus guaranteed certain rights, but they still potentially faced the same punishments, including capital punishment, as adults in the criminal justice system.

In the 1980's, the Supreme Court was repeatedly asked to rule on whether the execution of a juvenile offender was permissible under the Constitution. Eddings v. Oklahoma7 was the first case the Supreme Court agreed to hear based on the defendant's age (Eddings was 16 at the time he murdered a highway patrol officer). Without ruling on the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty, the Court vacated the juvenile's death sentence on the grounds that the trial court had failed to consider additional mitigating circumstances. Eddings was important, however, because the Court held that the chronological age of a minor is a relevant mitigating factor that must be considered at sentencing. Justice Powell, in writing for the majority, stated:

[Y]outh is more than a chronological fact. It is a time of life when a person may be the most susceptible to influence and psychological damage. Our history is replete with laws and judicial recognition that minors, especially in their earlier years, generally are less mature and responsible than adults.8

The Supreme Court rejected five requests between 1983 and 1986 to consider the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty upon a juvenile (Jackson, 1996). It was not until 1987, in Thompson v. Oklahoma,9 that the Supreme Court agreed to consider this specific issue. The 5-3 decision vacated the defendant's death sentence (at the age of 15, Thompson had participated in the murder of his former brother-in-law). However, only four justices agreed that the execution of a 15-year-old would be cruel and unusual punishment under all circumstances (per se). Applying the standard eighth amendment analysis, Justices Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun opined that the execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment because it was inconsistent with standards of decency and failed to contribute to the two social goals of the death penalty—retribution and deterrence. Justice O'Connor concurred, but pointed out that Oklahoma's death penalty statute set no minimum age at which the death penalty could be imposed. Sentencing a 15-year-old under this type of statute violated the standard for special care and deliberation required in capital cases. The outcome of the decision was that a State's execution of a juvenile who had committed a capital offense prior to age 16 violated Thompson unless the State had a minimum age limit in its death penalty statute (Jackson, 1996).

The next year, in Stanford v. Kentucky10 and Wilkins v. Missouri,11 the Supreme Court expressly held, in a 5-4 decision, that the eighth amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age 16 or 17. In both cases, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty sentence. While the Thompson plurality used the three-part analysis to determine if sentencing a juvenile offender to the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment, the Stanford plurality did not. The Stanford plurality rejected the third part of the test, namely, that the punishment is disproportionate to the severity of the crime and makes no measurable contribution to the deterrence of crime.

In Stanford, the Court considered the evolving standards of decency in society as reflected in historical, judicial, and legislative precedents; current legislation; juries' and prosecutors' views; and public, professional, and international opinions. The Court based its determination of evolving standards of decency on legislative authorization of the punishment. The dissenting judges argued that the record of State and Federal legislation protecting juveniles because of their inherent immaturity was not relevant in constituting a national consensus. The justices also found that public opinion polls and professional associations were an "uncertain foundation" on which to base constitutional law. In the end, the Court found that capital punishment of juveniles ages 16 or 17 did not offend societal standards of decency.


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Juveniles and the Death PenaltyCoordinating Council on Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention
November 2000