Profile of Youth Affected

Since the series of Supreme Court decisions upholding the use of the death penalty for juveniles, juvenile offenders have received the sentence of death fairly consistently, at least during the past 20 years. Since 1973, 196 juvenile death sentences have been imposed. This accounts for less than 3 percent of the almost 6,900 total U.S. death sentences. Approximately two-thirds of these have been imposed on 17-year-olds and nearly one-third on 15- and 16-year-olds (see table 2).

Table 2

The rate of juvenile death sentencing was initially somewhat erratic, fluctuating in the years following Furman v. Georgia (1972), but became more consistent in the mid-1980's. The rate dropped somewhat in the late 1980's, possibly because of cases pending before the Supreme Court (Streib, 2000). In the 1990's, however, the annual rate returned to a consistent 2-3 percent of all sentences, despite the dramatic increase in juvenile arrests for murder that occurred between 1985 and 1995.

Of the 196 juvenile death sentences imposed since 1973, 74 (or 38 percent) remain in force and 105 (54 percent) have been reversed. Of the 17 executions that have occurred since 1973, 4 took place this year. Many juveniles are well into adulthood by the time they face execution. The length of time on death row has ranged from 6 to 20 years (Streib, 2000).

As of June 2000, 74 adults, ranging in age from 18 to 41 years old, remain on death row for crimes committed as juveniles:

  • All 74 offenders are male.

  • Seventy-three percent committed their crimes at age 17.

  • Sixty-three percent are minorities.

  • They are on death row in 16 different States.

  • They have been on death row for periods ranging from a few months to more than 21 years.

Of their victims, 80 percent were adults, 64 percent were white, and 53 percent were female. Texas, with 24 offenders on death row who committed their crimes as juveniles, holds 34 percent of the national total of such offenders (Streib, 2000).

Little information exists to characterize juvenile capital offenders beyond bare demographics. Although the 1976 Gregg decision established that the court must consider mitigating circumstances, capital offenders are often represented by public defenders or other appointed counsel who often do not have the time or resources to adequately investigate mitigating factors such as psychiatric history, family issues, and mental capacity. Thus, a complete profile of capital offenders is difficult to obtain, because detailed information about them is seldom available.

The few researchers who have examined this information have added to the profile of juveniles sentenced to the death penalty. In the mid-1980's, Lewis and colleagues (1988) conducted diagnostic evaluations of 14 (40 percent) of the 37 juvenile offenders on death row in the United States.12 Through these comprehensive assessments, Lewis and colleagues found that all 14 had sustained head injuries as children. Nine had major neuropsychological disorders, 7 had had psychotic disorders since early childhood, and 7 had serious psychiatric disturbances. Seven were psychotic at the time of evaluation or had been diagnosed in early childhood. Only two had IQ scores above 90 (100 is considered average). Only three had average reading abilities, and another three had learned to read on death row. Twelve reported having been brutally abused physically, sexually, or both, and five reported having been sodomized by relatives.

Many of these factors, however, had not been placed in evidence at the time of trial or sentencing and had not been used to establish mitigating circumstances:

The time and expertise required to document the necessary clinical information were not available. Furthermore, the attorneys' alliances were often divided between the juveniles and their families. [O]n several occasions, attorneys who chose to make use of our evaluations requested that we conceal or minimize parental physical and sexual abuse to spare the family. . . . Brain damage, paranoid ideation, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, all relevant to issues of mitigation, were either overlooked or deliberately concealed (Lewis et al., 1988:588).

In most cases, Lewis and colleagues found that the inmates and their families did not want to acknowledge past abuse or mental illness. Only 5 of the 14 inmates underwent any pretrial psychiatric evaluation, and the research team found these evaluations to be both incomplete and inaccurate. In many instances, the defendants were represented by public defenders or court-appointed attorneys who were insufficiently prepared for trial.13

Amnesty International found similar results. In 9 of 23 juvenile cases it examined, lawyers handling later appeals identified mitigating evidence that had not been presented at the trial or sentencing hearing (Amnesty International, 1991). A case in point is Dwayne Allan Wright, who was executed October 14, 1998, in Virginia's Greensville Correctional Center for a crime he committed at age 17.14 The court nominated a clinical psychologist, whom the defense accepted, only to find out later that the psychologist was the author of a study that concluded that mental illness and environment are not mitigating factors in the commission of crimes and that "criminals act because they develop an ability to 'get away with' their crimes and 'live rather well' as a result" (Amnesty International, 1998:30).

The research of Robinson and Stephens (1992) corroborated that of Lewis and colleagues. Robinson and Stephens applied 5 descriptive categories to 91 juveniles who had been sentenced to death between 1973 and 1991. The categories were based on mitigating circumstances that had been established by the evidence and were in addition to "youth"—a mitigating factor established in Eddings v. Oklahoma. Robinson found that:

  • Almost half of those sentenced had troubled family histories and social backgrounds and problems such as physical abuse, unstable childhood environments, and illiteracy.

  • Twenty-nine suffered psychological disturbances (e.g., profound depression, paranoia, self-mutilation).

  • Just under one-third exhibited mental disability evidenced by low or borderline IQ scores.

  • More than half were indigent.

  • Eighteen were involved in intensive substance abuse before the crime.

Juveniles sentenced to death share varying combinations of these mitigating circumstances, in addition to their youthful age. In 61 of the 91 cases (67 percent), one or more factors in addition to "youth" was present.


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