What is the Juvenile Death Penalty?

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  • Written By: Victoria Bonanni
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  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2019
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The juvenile death penalty involves sentencing to death criminals who were under the age of 18 when they committed a capital crime. A capital crime in the United States is defined as murder, mass murder, genocide, or treason. The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the juvenile death penalty. As of 2010, only two countries — Iran and Somalia — impose capital punishment for criminals under the age of 18.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the death penalty was unconstitutional for criminals who were 15 years old or under at the time of a crime. In the case Thompson v. Oklahoma, Thompson had been convicted of participating in the killing of his former brother-in-law. At the time, a study of 14 juvenile cases in which the death penalty was pending showed a majority of the criminals involved had experienced head trauma as children or were subjected to physical, mental, or sexual abuse during their lifetime. Only two of the offenders had an intelligence quotient (IQ) over 90 and most were illiterate or had learned to read while in jail.


On March 1, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a law that ruled out the death penalty for all criminals under the age of 18. At the time, 72 prisoners in 20 states were affected by this ruling. The case in issue is Roper v. Simmons, wherein Simmons had committed premeditated murder during a burglary when he was 17. Simmons’ troubled background was not disclosed to the jury, which sentenced him to death.

The Supreme Court based its examination on the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling, in which it was ruled unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on mentally retarded criminals primarily because they could not understand their culpability. Arguments concentrated on the immaturity and inability of the criminal, because of his age, to understand the consequences of his crime. It was eventually brought out that “evolving standards of decency” had determined the juvenile death penalty violated the Eighth and 14th amendments.

Dissenting opinions questioned the “national consensus” of opinion about the juvenile death penalty, because only 18 of the 38 states that then had the death penalty prohibited the execution of juveniles, and wondered whether such consensus was even relevant. Also questioned was the propensity of the Supreme Court at the time to refer to foreign law in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. It was argued that the role of the judiciary is to rule on what the law states and not what it should say. As of 2010, 35 U.S. states have the death penalty.


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Post 4

@TreeMan - That is a completely different issue involving juvenile justice, but still connects to the juvenile death penalty.

There have been very heinous crimes committed by juveniles in the past and courts have ruled that due to various factors, such as abuse, neglect, or just not having the basic understanding of right and wrong, that the juvenile should be put in jail, usually off on their own, in hopes that they can be reformed and placed back in society as opposed to executing them.

I have heard of various instances in which courts decide that they do not want to give up on the juvenile, despite how heinous their crime was, and thus decide to give them a chance to

return to society, after they have determined that they have grown as a person.

Despite the fact they committed murder, juvenile get treated differently in the court system and I am wondering why there is such a consensus, across the world, in the attitude, exempting the countries of Iran and Somalia?

Post 3
@kentuckycat - I really feel like this issue has changed over time as the court has become less and less conservative over the years and have made more of an effort to focus on prisoners rights.

Although there were juveniles executed in various states over the years, there were not as many as one would believe, and it was usually an occurrence that garnered national media attention.

I really think that the courts have become much more sympathetic to people, such as juveniles in cases like this, over the years, because of the complexity of the legal system and the understanding that mistakes made, while young, can possibly be part of a larger issue with the individual not grasping what they did.

Anymore, a juvenile that commits murder usually gets a life sentence, if the courts see no hope of reform, or they get released when they become adults.

Post 2

@stl156 - That is a really sad story and it really shows how much the justice system has changed.

I remember watching a show in the late 90's where there was this 17 year old kid that was sentenced to death for murder, he murdered his father who was abusing him, and was sentenced to death by the courts.

Another episode of the same show had a ten year old kid shooting someone that was abusing their brother. These two episodes on the same show lead me to believe that they were trying to present legal questions to the audience concerning young kids and crimes and what is fair.

I find this issue to be very strange as there has never seemed to be a consensus how the courts should approach this issue and I am shocked it was not until after 2000 that the courts settled the issue for minors.

Post 1

I have heard many stories about juveniles being put on death row. Several of these stories involve orphans being convicted of murder and sentenced to death before it was required by the courts to grant them a court appointed attorney.

It was not until the 1960's that courts were required to provide a an attorney, if one could not be afforded, and the only exception was if the defendant could not represent themself, because of something like a mental disability.

Unfortunately, this all depended on the judge in the case and if they were sympathetic, so there are instances in which teen orphans were accused of crimes, but were not allowed an attorney and were sentenced to death.

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