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July 30, 2011

Saying No to the Death Penalty: The Excuses of Adolescence


Most adolescents spend their time going to school. But some adolescents spend their time murdering people.
Most adults spend their time working. But some adults also spend their time murdering people. In many states, these adults are often executed.
So where, and more importantly, with what reasoning, do we draw the line between adolescent and adult? And, especially in cases of murder, what should that line mean?

Usually in cases such as this we want to turn to scientific evidence. But in issues of law it is never that simple.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made many rulings regarding the death penalty, there have been two prominent cases regarding juveniles. Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1988) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under sixteen when a crime was committed, and Roper vs. Simmons (2005) outlawed the death penalty for individuals who were under eighteen when a crime was committed. With Roper vs. Simmons, the courts finally had some scientific data (although still not completely conclusive) to work with. But the issue of the death penalty is far from over. That ruling was 5-4.

"Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain" is an article written for "Science" in 2004 by Mary Beckman, just before the Roper vs. Simmons decision was made. It clearly outlines the neurological data compiled to support the case of Christopher Simmons.
Although there is more data relevant to the case now, this article is particularly interesting because we can look at the 2005 ruling that followed.
His case was quite grisly, involving robbing, tying up, and throwing a woman off of a bridge.

The defense presented the argument that the death penalty was cruel and unusual because the defendant's brain was not functionally identical to that of an adult. The article states, "Structurally, the brain is still growing and maturing during adolescence, beginning its final push around 16 or 17" (Beckman, 2004). Neural connections of adulthood are shaped during the teen years, involving a decrease in gray matter and an increase in white matter. Perhaps the most significant data presented was that on frontal lobe maturation. There is an apparent, "wave of brain change moving forward into the front of the brain", seen using MRIs in an NIMH study (Beckman, 2004). This is integral to the case because the frontal lobe is linked to impulse control. Erratic behavior is also more prevalent in adolescents; "the brain switches from relying heavily on local regions in childhood to more distributive and collaborative interactions among distant regions in adulthood" (Beckman, 2004).

Arguments for and against the death penalty always seem to be a muddled combination of personal belief, religion, experience, science, and history. And to complicate the matter, we're talking about some very grisly crimes. In the 2005 opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest" (Kennedy, 2005). There is no doubt that the scientific evidence presented had an effect on the ruling. But, unfortunately, it is not likely that such evidence will ever provide us with an infallible answer. The 2004 article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Elizabeth Sowell of UCLA, "We couldn't do a scan on a kid and decide if they should be tried as an adult" (Beckman, 2004). Six years later we have more data, but this remains true.

Beckman, Mary. "Crime, Culpability, and the Adolescent Brain." Sciencemag.org. AAAS, 30 July 2004. Web. 30 July 2011. .
Posted by      Jessica L. at 8:24 PM MDT

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