US Supreme Court Rules NO Death Penalty for Juveniles
Brain research may have played a role in the decision

March 4, 2005

On March 1, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for people who are younger than 18 years old is unconstitutional. This ruling will end the practice of execution of juveniles in all states where this punishment was permitted.

Although the Supreme Court's written decision of the case does not mention brain research specifically, it does describe how juveniles lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and are more susceptible to peer pressure. Also, several organizations submitted "friend-of-the-court" briefs that were filed in the case. For example, the American Bar Association brief referred to research showing that the juvenile brain is not fully developed. Medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, submitted a brief to show that juvenile brains function differently than adult brains. Similarly, the brief filed by the American Psychological Association pointed out that adolescents think and behave differently than adults.

It is likely that the justices considered this information about the juvenile brain while deciding the case. The apparent differences between the juvenile and adult brain may have been enough for five justices to determine that juveniles should not be subject to the death penalty.

The Supreme Court decision on this matter was a 5 to 4 split. Five justices (Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter) voted to ban the death penalty for juveniles and four justices (William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia) voted against the ban.

References and Links:

  1. Supreme Court of the United States
  2. Neuroethics - from Neuroscience for Kids
  3. American Bar Association - Juvenile Justice Committee

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