Dudley Sharp, 10/2/04
There are a number of inadequate issues raised in opposition to 16-17 year old murderers being culpable for the death penalty — Brain science and other arguments are either weak or false.
BRAIN SCIENCE & JUVENILE DEATH PENALTY — NO HOLY GRAIL (1)
“The brain data don't show that adolescents typically have reduced legal culpability for crimes.” Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan.
UCLA’s Elizabeth Sowell, another prominent brain-development researcher, takes a dim view of the movement to apply neuroscience to the law. She says that no current research connects specific brain traits of typical teenagers to any mental or behavioral problems.
“The scientific data aren't ready to be used by the judicial system,” she remarks. “The hardest thing [for neuroscientists to do] is to bring brain research into real-life contexts.”
The ambiguities of science don't mix with social and political causes, contends neuroscientist Bradley S. Peterson of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. For instance, it’s impossible to say at what age teenagers become biologically mature because the brain continues to develop in crucial ways well into adulthood, he argues.
Such findings underscore the lack of any sharp transition in brain development that signals maturity, according to neuroscientist William T. Greenough of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Definitions of adulthood change depending on social circumstances, Greenough points out. Only 200 years ago, Western societies regarded 16-year-olds as adults.
“Brain science offers no simple take-home message about adolescents,” says B.J. Casey of Cornell University’s Weill Medical College in New York City. “It’s amazing how little we know about the developing brain.”
Brain-scanning techniques, including the popular MRI, remain a “crude level of analysis,” Casey notes. What’s more, many critical brain-cell responses are too fast for MRI to track.
Brain data, particularly those on delayed frontal-lobe growth in adolescents, also need to be put in a cultural and historical perspective, Harvard’s Kagan asserts. Frontal-lobe development presumably proceeds at roughly the same pace in teenagers everywhere. Yet current rates of teen violence and murder vary from remarkably low to alarmingly high from country to country, he notes.
“Something about cultural context must be critical here,” Kagan says. “Under the right conditions, 15-year-olds can control their impulses without having fully developed frontal lobes.”
If incomplete brains automatically reduce adolescents’ capacity to restrain their darker urges, “we should be having Columbine incidents every week,” he adds.
Science News summarizes these positions: ” . . .brain science doesn’t belong in court because there’s no evidence linking specific characteristics of teens’ brains to any legally relevant condition, such as impaired moral judgment or an inability to control murderous impulses. ”
AGE, ALONE, CANNOT DICTATE CULPABILITY
No one, including psychiatrists, psychologists and brain specialists, disputes that some 16-17 year olds are as mature, or more mature, than some of those 18 and older. US Supreme Court Justices, Nobel Peace Prize winners, the American Medical Association and the European Union agree.
Therefore, the argument against executing some 16-17 year old murderers is without merit, when it is based upon age, alone.
Is a murderer less culpable solely because they murdered someone one-second, one minute, one week, one month or one year before their 18th birthday? Of course not.
US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes:
“Furthermore, granting the premise that adolescents are generally less blameworthy than adults who commit similar crimes, it does not necessarily follow that all 15-year-olds are incapable of the moral culpability that would justify the imposition of capital punishment. Nor is there evidence that 15-year-olds as a class are inherently incapable of being deterred from major crimes by the prospect of the death penalty.” (2)
It is argued that because people have to be older to drink, vote, marry, etc., that it is hypocritical to say that some 16-17 year olds are mature enough to be death eligible for committing capital murder.
MacArthur Juvenile Competence Study: “The study did not find differences between juveniles aged 16 and 17 and young adults (18-24) in abilities relevant to their competence to stand trial.” (3)
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION
Those who claim that the death penalty is a human rights violation have failed to make their case.
It is presented that some US states are equal with a number of less democratic nations that execute those who were under age 18 when they committed their murder(s).
In terms of proportionality, execution cannot be viewed as disproportionately severe in relation to the crime. The innocent murder victim did not earn or deserve their fate, whereas the murderer voluntarily took the lives of the innocent and thereby volunteered for the punishment available within that jurisdiction.
(1) excerpts from “Teen Brains on Trial”, Bruce Bower, Science News, 5/8/04, vol. 165, No. 19, p.299
(2) Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988) (USSC) at
(3) from Study Summary, ” MacArthur Juvenile Competence Study”,www.mac-adoldev-juvjustice.org/competence%20study%20summary.pdf
Full Study, Results, http://www.mac-adoldev-juvjustice.org/page23.html