Punishment and the Death Penalty Essay

A major threat building up to juveniles charged of capital offense is that the death penalty could be imposed. While it is merely rarely imposed on juveniles commonly, it however turns out to be an alternative, specifically if the juvenile was under the age of sixteen or older when the immediate capital crime was charged. The death penalty has created much controversy. Its advocates assume it to be merely being a punishment, retributive, a crime extinguisher, and a mechanism of crime regulation through extermination. Its adversaries consider it as uncivilized, fulfilling no valuable purpose, and transgressing one’s constitutional right to prevent harsh and odd punishment (Clendenen & Beaser, 2009). The concern remains unresolved.

Provided with information regarding the transfer of juvenile offenders to adult criminal court, it is safe to assume that these juvenile offenders still obtain substantial considerations from the criminal justice system because of their youthfulness or immaturity. It is quite appropriate to specify or set a certain age bracket wherein a juvenile offender can be tried in court as an adult and can be sentenced to the death penalty for a capital crime committed. There are particular factors that should be considered in handling juvenile delinquents and these factors can go far beyond the scope of academic disciplines. Hence, the debate if juvenile offenders should be tried as adult in criminal courts or should be sentenced to death for capital offense is still ongoing.

II. Atkins V. Virginia (2002)

Daryl Renard Atkins was arrested and imprisoned for alleged abduction, armed robbery and capital murder. During the penalty stage of the trial of Atkins, the defense depended on a single witness, a forensic psychologist, who attested that Atkins is suffering from a mild bout of metal retardation. The jury decided to send Atkins to the death row, however, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled for a second hearing due to the trial court’s deceptive use of a verdict form. At the second sentencing hearing the same forensic psychologist played as a witness for the defense, but this time the State invalidated Atkin’s aptitude. Once again, the jury decided to sentence Atkins to death. In confirming, the Supreme Court of Virginia used as a basis the Penry V. Lynaugh which is a similar case as of Atkins, in turning down Atkin’s disputation that he cannot be put to death because of his mild case of mental retardation (Clendenen & Beaser, 2009). Therefore, the question here is, if whether the execution of mentally retarded persons is vindictive and unusual punishment banned by the Eight Amendment, or otherwise.

In an opinion given by Justice Paul Stevens, the Court maintained that sentencing mentally retarded criminals to the death penalty is harsh and unusual punishment which is disallowed by the Eight Amendment. From the moment it has confronted the issue for the last time, the Court justified that a substantial number of States have decided that death is not an appropriate punishment for criminals who are suffering from mental retardation. Furthermore, the Court settled on that there was a critical dilemma whether rationale underlying the death penalty, reprisal and preclusion of capital crimes, is relevant to mentally retarded criminals, because of their narrowed blameworthiness. “Construing and applying the Eight Amendment in the light of our evolving standards of decency, we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of mentally retarded offender,” (Fagan, 2005, 427) argues Justice Stevens.

Mental health professionals have stressed out that the characteristic indications of the mentally retarded and eagerness to please force them to confess, occasionally wrongly, to capital crimes. In 1989, the American Bar Association formulated a regulation contradicting the execution of those criminals suffering from mental retardation. The organization argued that execution of these special individuals is intolerable in a cultured and civilized society such as America, regardless of their blameworthiness or innocence. In 1997, the sustained burden of the death penalty on the mentally retarded and young offenders threw in to the organization’s appeal for a countrywide standstill on the death penalty (Steinberg, 2001).

III. Roper V. Simmons (2005)

In 1993, the 17-year-old Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death. A succession of appeals to both state and federal courts ended in 2002; however, every appeal was rejected. Afterwards, the Missouri Supreme Court in 2002 maintained the execution of Simmon while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that putting the mentally ill to the death row is a violation of the Eight and 14th Amendment ruling out on harsh and unusual punishment since a large portion of Americans regarded it harsh and unusual, the Missouri Supreme Court determined to re-evaluate the case of Simmon (Fagan, 2005).

Basing from the justifications in the Atkins case, the Missouri concluded that the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 in Stanford v. Kentucky, which maintained that sending the minors to the dearth penalty was not unconstitutional, was not anymore valid. The judgment in Stanford v. Kentucky had depended on a ruling that a mass of Americans did not take into account the execution of juveniles to be harsh and unusual. The Missouri Court, quoting countless laws approved since 1989 that restricted the possibility of the death penalty, maintained that national opinion had shifted; discovering that a mass of Americans were now against to the death penalty for the juveniles, the court upheld that such capital punishments were now unconstitutional (ibid, 428).

On petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government disputed that permitting a state court to upset a decision made by the Supreme Court through looking at changing standards would be precarious, since state courts could simply conclude the capital punishments banned by the Supreme Court, such as the execution of the mentally retarded in Atkins v. Virginia, were now acceptable because of a shift in the opinions of the American population (Fagan, 2005).

In an opinion stated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court decided that criteria of decorum have changed to that juvenile death penalty is vindictive and unusual punishment banned by the Eight Amendment. The majority quoted an agreement against the executions of juvenile delinquents among state legislatures, and its individual resolution that the death penalty is a lopsided penalty for young offenders. At the end the Court cited the overpowering international opinion against execution of juvenile delinquents. Other chief justices opposed the decision (ibid).

IV. Conclusion

Whether juveniles should be executed, and the appropriate age at which they can be put to death penalty has been dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court. In quite a few comprehensive verdicts during the 1980s, the Supreme Court in due course decided on a minimum age of sixteen, in which the death penalty may be relevant. Hence, any young person who was under sixteen or older during the crime becomes entitled to the death penalty in those states which impose death penalty as a punishment. Public opinion is divided regarding this concern, as are policymakers. In the contemporary period, the juvenile justice system is embattled for several changes, involving a new sentencing system, higher homogeneity in the laws of multiple jurisdictions, and a more reliable framework of what comprises delinquent behavior. Both public and political outlook appear to prefer the maintenance of juvenile courts, but with evaluated liability through better employment of compensation, community service, and restricted use of incarceration.

It is absolutely alarming for people to know that criminal acts nowadays are not merely committed by adults but also by younger people. A number of concerns prove to be a dilemma to a society’s framework of the character and path of human growth and justice as much as critical is juveniles committing brutal crimes. Since people do not anticipate young people to become offenders, the unpredicted interaction between juveniles and criminal behaviors establishes a problem that majority would discover complicated to determine. Perhaps, the only means available to pull through from this predicament is either to reconstruct the wrongdoing as something not that overcritical as a crime or to reconstruct the wrongdoer as an individual who is not actually a juvenile (Steinberg, 2001).


Braid, R. M. (1995). Punishment and the Death Penalty: The Current Debate. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Clendenen, R. & Beaser, H. (accessed in Jan 21, 2009). The Shame of America. The Post Reports on Juvenile Delinquency , 32-73.

Fagan, J. (2005). The Decline of the Juvenile Death Penalty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology , 427+.

Steinberg, L. (2001). Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried as Adults? Law & Justice , 34-35.