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.