The Psychobiologic, Sociomoral and Legal Development of Juveniles on Death Row
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In spite of substantial research completed on the subject of the death penalty, its imposition on offenders whose crimes were committed as juveniles continues to remain a subject of great debate. The recent Supreme Court decisions in Thompson v. Oklahoma, 108 S. Ct. 2687 (1988) and Stanford v. Kentucky, 109 S. Ct. 2969 (1989) theoretically established the age limit at 16-years-old. In reality, the imposition of sentences remains open to much judicial discretion in process and application. The crux of the problem is the great divide that continues to exist between the legal definition of juvenile and the biopsychosocial research. This paper argues that the legal definition fails to consider the biophysical and socioscientific evidence which is clearly supportive of a bright constitutional line being drawn at 18 years of age. There are currently a confirmed 71 subjects on death rows throughout the United States for crimes committed as juveniles. A substantive review of the available cases for similar appellate court identified mitigating factors is presented with particular emphasis on the recently argued Supreme Court cases of Thompson v. Oklahoma, Stanford v. Kentucky and Wilkins v. Missouri. Upon analysis of these cases, it appears that the young offenders have more than their age in common. Such factors as emotional and psychological disturbance, psychiatric diagnoses, troubled family history, documented history of head trauma and subnormal intelligence levels all put these juveniles at risk for so-called dissocial behavior. This risk factor is supported by a wide range of scientific data which is reviewed in this paper. In our society, disturbing ambiguity exists in the treatment of kids who kill. This is reflected in the diverse state statutes where the death penalty is permitted for juveniles. Although this individualized treatment was originally intended to be in the best interest of the juvenile, the unintended results have been inconsistency and inequity in treatment. A multitude of human factors make it virtually impossible to ensure that nonstatutory and statutory mitigating factors are uniformly applied in similar situations.