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Study challenges juvenile death penalty

Valerie P. Hans, professor of sociology and criminal justice
3:30 p.m., Oct. 6, 2004--A just-published study by two University of Delaware faculty members and two Northeastern University researchers challenges the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty.

The study, which was conducted by UD’s Valerie P. Hans, professor of sociology and criminal justice, and Benjamin D. Fleury-Steiner, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, in conjunction with William J. Bowers and Michael E. Antonio of Northeastern University, finds jurors very reluctant to give the death penalty to juvenile defendants because of their immaturity and dysfunctional family backgrounds.

"We've discovered why jurors across the nation very rarely sentence a juvenile defendant to death,” Hans said. “Jurors see juveniles as cognitively and socially immature, which makes them less than fully responsible for their crime. They're too young for the death penalty."

"Juvenile capital defendants come from families that are often dysfunctional and have done a poor job raising children,” Fleury-Steiner said. “Jurors are especially angry at the defendants’ families and hold them partly to blame. As one female juror told us, 'I wish we could put his parents on trial.'"

"Jurors find the death penalty less acceptable for juveniles than defendants with mental retardation for whom the death penalty has already been declared unconstitutional," Bowers, a principal research scientist, said. "Additionally, the likelihood of a death sentence drops off drastically when jurors know the defendant was under the age of 18 at the time of his crime."

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. Christopher Simmons was 17 at the time of his crime, but a jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court set aside his death sentence on the grounds that execution of persons under 18 years of age at the time of their crimes violates the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the death penalty for juveniles violates the "conscience of the community."

The decision-making of capital jurors is a key way to measure community conscience, Hans said, and the new study from the Capital Jury Project examines the decision-making of 48 jurors from 12 capital cases with defendants 17 or younger at the time of their crimes, comparing their views with more than a thousand jurors who decided capital cases with older defendants.

The study finds that jurors are far less likely to impose the death penalty when the defendant is less than 18 years of age than when the defendant is an adult. The study shows that the much greater reluctance of jurors to impose death sentences in juvenile than in adult cases is explained by jurors’ thinking about the defendant, his responsibility and his maturity.

The extensive juror interviews reveal that jurors view juvenile defendants distinctively. Jurors in juvenile cases see a defendant's dysfunctional family background and upbringing as responsible in part for his or her behavior. They see the defendant as less than a fully mature and responsible member of society. Jurors emphasize the juvenile defendant's diminished or partial responsibility for the crime. All these factors lead jurors to decide on life rather than death for the vast majority of juvenile capital defendants.

The study also shows that jurors are more reluctant to impose a death sentence when the defendant is under 18 than when they believe he or she is mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court has now outlawed capital punishment for the mentally retarded because it violates the conscience of the community.

The findings are based on data from the Capital Jury Project, a study of the decision making of capital jurors conducted by university-based researchers from 14 states with the support of the National Science Foundation.

The project has interviewed 1,198 jurors from 353 capital trials in 14 states including Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia--states responsible for 76 percent of the persons on death row and 78 percent of those executed.

The death penalty is rare for juvenile offenders. Nationally, they comprise only 2 percent of death row inmates and those executed. Of the 1,198 capital jurors interviewed by CJP investigators, 48 served on cases with a juvenile defendant. The juvenile cases in the CJP sample are regionally diverse and representative of juvenile cases on death row. They come from Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

The juror interview findings are consistent with public opinion polls showing that most Americans oppose the death penalty for juveniles, Fleury-Steiner said.

Two articles describing the findings are posted on the Capital Jury Project web site at [www.cjp.neu.edu].

  • A summary of the principal research findings can be found in an article titled "Capital Jurors as the Litmus Test of Community Conscience for the Juvenile Death Penalty" in the May-June 2004 issue of the journal Judicature.
  • A full report of the research findings can be found in an article titled "Too Young for the Death Penalty: An Empirical Examination of Community Conscience and the Juvenile Death Penalty from the Perspective of Capital Jurors" in the June 2004 issue of the Boston University Law Review.

Article by Neil Thomas
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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