Culpability and Capital Punishment: Implications of Atkins for Executing Juveniles

Barry C. Feld, University of Minnesota Law School

In Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), a plurality of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty for sixteen- and seventeen-year old youths. Subsequently, in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Court barred the use of the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders. Atkins reasoned that mentally retarded offenders lacked the culpability required to justify the death penalty and ran a special risk of wrongful conviction and execution. Many of the developmental limitations associated with mental retardation also characterize the diminished culpability of adolescents. While typical adolescents may have greater cognitive capacity than the mentally retarded, developmental psychological research indicates that adolescents differ significantly from adults in terms of attitudes toward and perceptions of risk, temporal perspecitve, prudential judgment, self-control, and susceptibility to peer-group influences. Neuroscience indicates that young people's brains still are developing into their early 20s. Tothe extent that Atkins' rejection of the death penalty rested on offenders' diminished responsibility, it sis appropriate for the Court and state legislatures to reconsider the eligibility of juveniles for the death penalty.

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Updated 05/20/2006