Today the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be given to minors. The surprise here is that the ruling was needed. 30 of the 50 states have already banned the death penalty for minors. According to NPR News, in 1990 there were 10 countries that allowed the death penalty for minors. Before today there was only one. The case that came before the court was indeed particularly heinous. It was a case involving a then 17 year old male who, during a burglary, was recognized by the home owner, taped her eyes and mouth shut, bound her, drove her to a rail road trestle, and threw her to her death. He was then tried as an adult and given the death penalty. There are several issues involved when considering the issue of whether to execute juveniles who commit particularly violent crimes. First of course is the question of whether state sponsored execution is moral to begin with. This fundamental question is followed by the questions of how we treat minors in other facets of society, and finally, why we prosecute crime and administer the death penalty all.
The big issue, the one that has sparked debate in this country for at least as long as I’ve been alive (and I’m sure longer than that) is whether the death penalty is appropriate at all. My personal views on this issue have changed over time. As a young man I believed in the eye-for-an-eye tenor of the death penalty. After all, it’s only fair right? Later I believed that the death penalty should only be administered if the family of the victim was willing to do the deed themselves. Indeed, I even conceived of a big game style hunt to carry out the task. Later still I believed that death row inmates were a drain on the general society and that they should be executed on the spot, directly after sentencing in order to save taxpayer money that was being wasted keeping them on death row for decades while they used their appeals. Over the last few years I’ve had many debates with many people about the death penalty, and they’ve swayed me. Then I did some research. The thing that really turned me against the death penalty was an episode of the nationally syndicated radio program, “This American Life” which aired on February 11th, 2005. The episode is devoted to the story of a man who, despite forensic evidence, eye witness testimony, and the fact that the police had the real killer in custody, was given the death penalty in the state of New York. The episode, titled “DIY”, can be heard at www.thislife.org. Don’t get me wrong, I think that people who commit violent crime should be dealt with harshly, but the more I read, the more I heard, the more convinced I became that putting the decision to kill in the hands of the government was too inexact a science. When you add in the yokels that make up most juries it becomes too horrible to think about some being sentenced to die by a jury of their peers. I’ll tell you, if I were ever facing the prospect of state sponsored death a jury of my peers is the last thing I’d want. I’d want twelve people way smarter and more compassionate than me. The fact is that people are wrongly convicted all the time. Witnesses lie, cops follow their prejudices or their desire more than they follow evidence, and often testimony or evidence that would clear a defendant are ignored, or never heard. Basically, the death penalty is a bad idea. It doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t bring closure to families that still have to mourn their loved ones, and there’s just too much risk of getting it horribly wrong.
The idea of applying the death penalty to minors is even more horrific. The US generally recognizes 18 as the age of adulthood. It is the age when you can vote, have sex legally, marry without parental consent and go off to die in Iraq. (Remember, if you’re a male you have to sign up for the draft at 18 if you want to be eligible for federal student aid. Even though they say there isn’t going to be a draft, and even though you’ll likely be exempted from the draft if you’re enrolled in a degree-seeking program. Ignacio, I’m talking to you!) According to both law and custom a person who is 17 years and 364 days old is incapable of making any of these kinds of decisions on their own. So, is there some magic of biology that occurs at 18 that gives one the ability to make calm rational decisions about life? Have any of you ever been 18? Hell, I’m 28 and I’m just now starting to make calm rational decisions. The fact is that no one suddenly becomes responsible at 18. Some people are responsible at birth, others are never responsible no matter how old they get.
So what’s the point? The point is that kids are fucked up. They live in a fucked up world, in a fucked up country, with a fucked up government, elected by a fucked up society. Sure, it’s OK for us adults, we can cope, but remember high school? Now add mixed messages about sex (it sells, but it’s bad), drugs (drugs are BAD! Now take your Zoloft and Ritalin, and Cialis), politics (Marriage is good, but only for a man and a woman, ignore your divorced parents and that happy gay couple down the block who have been together for 20 years), individuality (be yourself, as long as yourself conforms to all school policies), etc. If you think it was bad when you were a kid, it’s way worse now. The point is that there are certain personality disorders that psychiatrists are prohibited from diagnosing in minors because the kids are still developing. The point is that minors are far more likely to be swayed by group interaction. There’s even a term for it, Peer…something. It’s all the rage.
It seems that juveniles being tried as adults is becoming more common as America becomes more fed up with increasing and increasingly violent crimes being perpetrated by minors. I’m not suggesting that a 17 year old doesn’t know that killing is wrong. What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of it isn’t as developed. I’m horrified at the thought of violence in a way that I wasn’t even a couple of years ago. When I was 17 I could watch anything Hollywood was willing to put on a screen. Now when I hear about people stepping on land mines, or being torn apart by car bombs, of beaten with blunt objects it affects me physically. There’s a reason we don’t let minors do all the things we don’t let minors do, we don’t trust them. We know what it’s like to be a kid and we know that we cannot entrust them with certain responsibilities. So how can we decide to kill them?
In his decent one of the judges noted that we allow minors to make decisions about abortion without parental consent. He asked how we could entrust them such an important decision when at the same time we say that they cannot be held responsible for making the grown up decision to kill. This question is flawed in that it is based on false pretenses. In order for it to be valid we must first accept that abortion is an adult decision. It’s not. Especially in the case of minors abortion is often a way out trouble caused by making an immature decision. We allow minors to do this without their parent’s knowledge because abortion is a traumatic and stressful experience that doesn’t need to be compounded with punishment and possible life long family stress. Second, if are to accept this as a valid question then we must also accept that the decision to kill is a mature decision. It is not. The decision to kill is childish. Those who kill in a fit of rage, or during the commission of another crime do so because they are not mature enough to do otherwise. The kind of anger that leads to spontaneous murder is infantile. Crime, in and of itself is immature. The decision to rob or extort is arrived at because the perpetrator cannot see, or is unwilling to undertake a mature and responsible course in the order to achieve their goals. One could argue that any otherwise rational person who commits homicide could not possibly be mature enough to understand the full effect of their actions. It seems impossible that anyone who fully grasps the impact of committing murder could not possibly go through with it. Conversely, anyone who is capable of fully grasping the effect of murder and still go through with it must be insane, and therefore also ineligible for the death penalty. Indeed, murder can be seen as the ultimate immature crime, the instant removal of a perceived obstacle. If this is the case then how can we condemn to death a juvenile who acts in exactly the role society has cast them in?
This is not to say that society bears sole responsibility in creating child killers, though we should examine why this is much more of a modern phenomenon. Nor should juvenile killers skate simply because they were under age at the commission of their crimes. Anyone who takes a life in cold blood, whether spontaneously, or through conspiracy, should be locked away from society. However, in a nation where we cannot accurately assign the death penalty to adults, how can we even debate assigning it to children?