Discussion Of Whether There Should Be A Death Penalty For Juvenile Crimes

Should there be a death penalty for juvenile criminal offender? This has been one of the most sensitive and highly debated topics both in our Federal and State Legislatures in recent years. It is also one of the most high-profile subjects that several civil rights movement and organizations that fights for the rights of children such as, the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU. Let us first explore a few things in regard to children, scientific studies, brief history both domestic and abroad, statistics, and the legal system.

As a society, we believe that our youth are the future and so we must nurture them and guide them throughout their journey into becoming an adult. I believe that we as a community have the moral responsibility and must ensure that our knowledge is passed down to them so that they can become successful in their adult lives. We must be a good example and role model for them to follow. Without our guidance, their success in life are from slim to none. We, as a society also believe that children, anyone who are under the age of 18 years old, cannot effectively perform like an adult. At least not mentally. They often make wrong choices and does not or not able to think thoroughly of the consequences of their actions. Some people may also think that because they are juveniles, they do not yet have the proper mental capacity to make good judgment.

Numerous studies conducted such as the one that was done at Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the UCLA’s Department of Neuroscience revealed that the brain of a person in their adolescent stage of life is not yet fully developed, thus one can conclude that often we cannot expect juveniles to produce proper judgment when placed in a tricky situation and unpleasant experiences. Those studies suggests that at the period of time in person’s life when they are developing into an adult, their prefrontal lobes (part of the brain which is said to be responsible for decision making) and frontal lobes (part of the brain which controls memory and also problem solving) are still developing, and that this development in person life is not complete until between 18-22 years of age.

Because of these qualities, children are often become a victim of persuasion using force or other means of unethical enticement to do something often illegal or immoral. They are not able to make balanced choices and to make sound judgment. They are often gullible and are easy to manipulate which cause them to turn into a bait or someone who takes blame and fall for crimes that they did not commit. They sometimes say things against their will due to coercion or threats made to them or their love ones. Juveniles sometimes make false confessions due to their inability to fully comprehend and lack of understanding of the investigation and legal process especially in cases where no attorneys or other adults present during questioning and interrogation.

For instance, take the case of a 14 -year-old boy Davontae Sanford. On September 17, 2017, a reported drug house situated in Wayne County Michigan was entered by the suspect, shot five people while killing four in the process. The incident was reported by a Detroit Police chaplain who lives in the neighborhood. During the course of the investigation, police came upon Davontae Sanford who was wearing pajamas at that time, in the nearby street where the incident took place. Sanford was detained despite inconsistency of the surviving victim’s account of the suspect’s description with that of Sanford’s physical appearance. Sanford, however, became the prime suspect of the murder investigation because he was nearby the scene of the crime. He was taken into custody by the police and brought to the police station for questioning. Without an attorney present or a guardian’s consent, Detectives began questioning Sanford. This is a clear violation of Michigan state law which relates that no juvenile should be questioned or interrogated without an attorney present or consent and presence of parents or guardians. Sanford gave statement to the investigators which was incriminating in nature. According to the record, Sanford was also not given his Miranda warnings until later in the investigation. During the trial at the Wayne County Circuit court on March 2008, Sanford’s defense attorney convinced him to plead guilty to the murder charges. Davontae Sanford was later sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison. However, Sanford was later exonerated and was freed after Vincent Smothers confessed and admitted to committing the murder that Sanford was initially charged. This is one is a perfect example of a juvenile who was put in a manipulative situation where the only thing he could do was plead guilty to a crime that he did not commit. Given these scientifically proven circumstances, where criminal culpability sits in regard to juveniles who are accused of committing a crime. Do these qualities can be accepted as a defense to a prosecution.

A friend of mine, who was a former guard at a juvenile facility for several years said that after working years at the facility, he made some interesting observations. He said that there are some juveniles who are tough on the outside but shows their true selves during detainment. He argued that some of those juveniles under his watch deserved to be locked up and that they knew what they were doing. They made the conscious effort to commit the crime because they knew from experience that all they are going to get is a slap on the wrist. Also, sometimes as a gang member, they take blame for an adult gang member’s crime because they know how the legal system works involving juveniles and incarceration. Those juveniles he referred to, however are not serious crime offenders. So, is bad parenting also to blame for these juveniles who commit crimes? Or the justice system needs some fixing? The juvenile court system has been around in the United States since 1899 and interestingly though, the Federal and State laws are still divided when trying for juvenile committed crimes. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution commands that “cruel and strange punishments” shall not be “inflicted.” In keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court, there are two kinds of cruel and unusual punishments: “barbaric” punishments and punishments that are disproportionate to the crime committed.

It was argued that because juveniles are still developing mentally and often does not yet possess a developed intellect to think of the possible consequences of the crime, they are about to commit, that there has to be some form of leniency. It was also argued that anyone under the age of 18 should not be tried as adults. Also because of their immaturity, juveniles who commit crimes are more likely to be able to rehabilitate and succeed when given a second chance in life. Although the Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly states that citizens are protected from cruel punishments, including capital punishment and death penalty, they are still being implemented and allowed by our legal system. What about heinous and more serious crimes, such as murder that are committed by juveniles?

The first known juvenile offender execution was in 1642 in the Plymouth Colony, way before our founding fathers drafted the United States Constitution. Thomas Graunger or Granger was sentenced to death by hanging when he was about 17 years-old. He was said to have committed buggery or act of bestiality, an act involving sexual fixation on non-human animals. His crime is not heinous or serious in comparison with today’s present laws. But the law was derived from the Leviticus 20:15 which read, ('And if a man shall lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast'). The death penalty originated in medieval England, it was brought to North America by the colonist and was since been adapted in 1791’s Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In 1976, five separate cases from Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Louisiana were argued at the Supreme Court level. All defendants in these separate states were sentenced to death for the crimes that they have committed. These cases were famously called as the July 2 cases. It appeared though that the hearing of these cases was not to uphold or invalidate the death penalty but to set a guidelines of imposition of death penalty from Furman vs. Georgia case in 1972. It was decided that when a death penalty is conducted, it must be in a less inhumane ways. In a way that it does not violate the Eight Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment.” Since 1976, there has been 22 juvenile offenders who were handed the death penalty and were executed, majority from the state of Texas. All but one was 17 years-old at the time they have committed their crimes. The death penalty was conducted during these offenders’ adult life. The longevity of time they have waited may have been due in part because of long legal process and appeals.

In Trop v. Dulles (1958), the Court first adopted the “evolving standards” test to decide whether sentences run afoul of the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” The “evolving standards” refer to what the Court calls “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Because the words in the Eight Amendment of the Constitution are not concrete, the handing down of death penalty must be examined and put through the evolving standards test. Opinions from the legislatures, judges, and the American public must be taken into consideration when deciding whether the capital punishment or death penalty violates the Eight Amendment of the Constitution’s meaning of cruel and unusual punishment.

This same approach, of the evolving standards test, was adapted for many years not only with death penalties but how the death penalty is to be imposed. This was the case in Florida where a death row inmate was executed using the electric chair. In the process of the execution, the electric chair caught on fire. Its evolving standard test was challenged. However, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Eight Amendment’s unusual and cruel punishment was not violated in this case. In 1988, the United States Supreme Court actually outlawed the death penalty for any offender younger than the age of 16. But it was not until 2005 when Supreme Court ruling of Roper and Simons affirmed that the death penalty being imposed on juveniles, anyone under the age of 18, violates the Eight Amendment of the United Constitution of cruel and unusual punishment. This might have been influenced by International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) treaty which prohibits the death sentence to anyone under the age of 18. However, besides the United States and the United Nations, no other countries have publicly condemned and denounced the execution of juvenile offenders. Because of the involvement of world organizations and its leaders, the death penalty imposed on juveniles has significantly decreased. Since the 1990’s there has been only 9 countries, including the United States who have reported juvenile offender executions in which Iran leads the most juvenile executed in the world. But in 2003, the Iranian parliament introduced a bill that would raise the minimum age to 18 but is yet to be enacted.

Today, United States have come a long way in ensuring the protection of juvenile offenders. Court systems have taken it a step further by not allowing certain ages to be tried as an adult. North Carolina do not try anyone under the age of 16 as adult, below 17 in the states of Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin. All remaining states laws prohibit the automatic transfer to adult jurisdiction for anyone under the age of 18. Moreover, the United States Supreme Court ruled 2002 that the execution of mentally ill juvenile offenders was halted which drew the conclusion of the 2005 Roper and Simons ruling.

Mental illness has wide range of mental disorders. This includes schizophrenia, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders. It is still a debate, however whether an adult who suffers from mental disorder also qualifies for the leniency of criminal culpability. They are after all, have clouded judgment, have inability to comprehend unlike normal human beings, and have detachment from reality. Should they also be exempt from the horror of death penalty in the case of insanity? Sadly though, even with all the efforts by civil rights union movements and human rights movement, execution of juvenile offender still exists.

Under the United Nations international law, the execution of juvenile offenders is prohibited and is condemned. In 2012, Zeinab Sekaanvand Lokran was convicted of murdering her husband when she was just 17 years old. She was executed in 2018 in Iran despite appealed from the United Nations. There are still a substantial numbers of juvenile offenders on death row in Iran. It is also being debated whether racial disparity plays a role in handing down those death penalties to juveniles. Statistics show that between 1974 and 2005, there were 226 individuals sentenced to death. 50 percent of those executed were African American while 10 were white. And it also disturbing to learned that about 95 percent of the juvenile death row inmates experienced neglect, substance, abuse, sexual abuse, lack of proper parenting, and some form of mental disorders. Aside from death penalty being viewed as inhumane by some, what are the benefits of practicing such law? The death penalty in general I believe has to be looked at some other perspective. Let us not forget the purpose of criminal punishment. They include retribution or revenge, deterrence or education, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.

Retribution by punishing the person who did the crime. It is a human nature to seek revenge when done wrong by someone. It may however, not always by inflicting pain to the offender. Deterrence or education, the law punishes wrongdoers I order to deter them from repeating the crime. Another form of deterrence is education. By educating the offenders and the public, it is our hope that crime would be lessened, if not eliminated. Incapacitation, by locking offender up. Serious offenders, repeat offenders, or offenders who are labeled as danger to the public are locked for a long time, lifetime for some. Rehabilitation may come in the form of probation while attending rehabilitation classes or may be while the offender is locked up. But do these purposes really work? Are they conducive to our free society?

Today only a handful of countries around the world still execute juvenile offenders. In country, like Iran, their religious belief plays a significant role on how they go about their day to day lives, including the implementation of laws and regulations. Their legal code is based on the Islamic Law or the Sharia Law. Their law still allows capital punishment of juvenile offender to include death penalty. Given however, they must have committed the following offenses of murder, rape, theft, and any crimes related to drugs. Although the United Nations Committee on the rights of the Child called for the end of juvenile execution in Iran, they are still being practiced today. During the founding of the League of Nation, in which Iran was part of, Iran declared public approval of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Iran however, argued that they will not abide by the United Nation’s international laws if it contradicts the Islamic or Sharia Laws. The question still remain, should there be a death penalty imposed on a juvenile offenders? Some call it culture and beliefs. Some call it necessary to offer justice to the person they have done wrong. But does it really offer some closure to the families of the victim, even if it does not bring one’s family member back? Whether we like it or not, laws still allow it. They have been around for hundreds of years. My guess would be that it would still be around long after we are gone. In a moral standpoint, yes, it is wrong to take someone’s life. It appeared that it is all about politics. Public outrage, I believe also has some degree of consideration on how government decides on what laws and how they are to be enforced. Some may view death penalty as pure evil and some view it as necessary evil. Whether we like it or not, it does exist, and our United Constitution allows it to a certain extent.


  1. Birckhead, T. R. (2008). North Carolina, Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, and the Resistance to Reform. North Carolina Law Review, 86(6). Retrieved 4 28, 2019, from http://campaignforyouthjustice.org/documents/resistancetoreformnc.pdf
  2. Death Penalty Information Center. (2019). Retrieved from DPIC: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org
  3. Dehghan, S. K. (n.d.). Iran criticised over capital punishment 'killing spree'. Retrieved 4 28, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/dec/15/iran-capital-punishment
  4. Executions of juveniles since 1990. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 28, 2019, from https://web.archive.org/web/20121204044639/http://www.amnesty.org/en/death-penalty/executions-of-child-offenders-since-1990
  5. Iran executed 670 in 2011, says U.N. investigator. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 28, 2019, from https://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/12/us-iran-rights-idUSBRE82B16N20120312
  6. Samaha, J. (2015). Criminal Law, Twelfth Edition. In J. Samaha, Criminal Law, Twelth Edition (p. 602). Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning, Inc.
  7. Taki, Y., & Kawashima, R. (2012). Brain Development in Childhood. The Open Neuroimaging Journal, 6(1), 103-110. Retrieved 4 28, 2019, from https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3499734
14 May 2021
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