Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities

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Abstract

This paper explores different arguments advanced in four published articles, which investigate the constitutionality of imposing death penalties for juveniles and mentally retarded patients. These articles differ in the reasons for rejecting death penalties for juveniles and mentally ill patients; however, they build on past cases, which have involved the conviction (or lack of it) for mentally retarded patients and juveniles. This paper, therefore, relies on statistical evidence and constitutional arguments presented in past cases. Capital Punishment in Context (2012) suggests that death penalties for juveniles and mentally ill patients are unconstitutional.

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Latzer & McCord (2010) have analyzed death penalty rulings in America (on a case-by-case basis) and say, juveniles and mentally retarded patients do not have the same culpability as adults (with no intellectual impairments) when they commit capital crimes. Therefore, both groups of authors say, juveniles and mentally retarded patients should be exempted from capital punishments. Houlé (2009) is more articulate in this regard, and suggests, juveniles and mentally retarded patients are more vulnerable to police investigations and have a weaker competence to stand trial (compared to adults). Clear & Reisig (2012) support this assertion and explain that the American legal system has failed to recognize the empirical differences between juveniles, mentally retarded patients, and adults when approving death sentences for juveniles and mentally ill patients. This paper builds on these arguments and shows that there is sufficient reason to exempt juveniles and mentally retarded patients from death sentences.

The Death Penalty for Juveniles, and Mental Disabilities

The entire purpose of enforcing criminal law is to ensure offenders are brought to justice. However, there have been many debates regarding the right type of punishment to give offenders. A common debate in this regard is the prosecution of juveniles and offenders who are mentally ill. Since 1899, there has been a legal recognition that there are significant developmental differences between adults and juveniles (which warrant the introduction of a different profile of punishments for both groups) (Clear & Reisig, 2012). There is also a general recognition (within the American legal system) of offenders with mental disabilities having an inferior reasoning process that may form the basis for exonerating their actions from certain capital crimes (Clear & Reisig, 2012, p. 505). However, based on the increased incidence of crime in the US (and the worsening degrees of offenses), Clear & Reisig (2012) explain that there has been a move towards introducing stronger policies and punishment for juveniles and offenders with mental disabilities.

The increased shift of policies and punishment for juveniles and offenders with mental disabilities has seen more juveniles and mentally disabled offenders transferred to mainstream criminal courts. There has also been an increase in the sentencing of offenders below the age of 18 years to capital punishment. Clear & Reisig (2012) explain that in the US, 38 states allow capital punishment. About 23 of these states allow the death penalty for minors who have committed capital offenses. However, there is a significant difference in the application of capital laws in these states. This diversity is unaffected by the rate of crime in these states. After the reintroduction of capital punishment (death penalty) in 1973, there have been about 17 executions of juveniles in the country. Latzer & McCord (2010) estimate that more than 70 more people await execution for capital offenses they committed before their 18th birthdays. The reintroduction of the death penalty for juveniles and mentally ill patients has elicited many debates regarding the constitutionality of this punishment. These debates have mainly revolved around the legal challenges surrounding the implementation of death penalties and the changing public perception about public safety. This paper proposes the exemption of capital punishment for minors and mentally ill patients.

Police Interrogation

Latzer & McCord (2010) demonstrate the vulnerability of minors and mentally ill patients to society. Their vulnerability poses a challenge to the credibility of police interrogations because it is easy for juveniles and mentally ill patients to give false information to the police. This probability is highly likely because minors and mentally ill patients find the police to be intimidating. Furthermore, based on the tactful strategies used by the police to get information from suspects, these minors and mentally ill patients are likely to crumble under their pressure (because of fear or delusion).

Studies done by Latzer & McCord (2010) on mentally ill patients affirm the above fact (here, it is reported that impulsivity and weak cognitive thoughts among mentally ill patients lead them to give false information to the police). Suggestively, delusions and extreme compliance with the interrogation process also dent the validity of police interrogations (which form the basis for future convictions). Studies done by Houlé (2009) have also shown that during interrogations, minors and mentally ill patients fail to comprehend their right to have an attorney and the implications of self-incrimination in the interrogation process because they are not intellectually equipped to comprehend these rights. Sometimes, these suspects are prompted by the police to waive their right to an attorney and they do so without properly understanding the implications of their actions. Comprehensively, it is crucial to know, juveniles and mentally ill patients are highly likely to give false information or make false confessions, which question the validity of judgments that rely on such skewed interrogations.

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Competency to Stand Trial

The competence to stand trial is an important part of the judicial process. Houlé (2009) encourages the need for offenders to defend themselves in a fair process, which relies on their competence to stand trial. The competence to stand trial is also protected by the US constitution because defendants not only need to have a rational but factual understanding of the trial process. In the same manner, Latzer & McCord (2010) demonstrate the need for defendants to consult with their lawyers and exhibit a significant level of understanding for the proceedings. This process relies on their competence to stand trial.

Juveniles and mentally disabled patients do not have the competence to stand trial. For example, a defendant who suffers from schizophrenia does not have the right grasp of reality to consult (adequately) with the defense lawyers for a fair trial. In this regard, Houlé (2009) believes that they should be deemed incompetent to stand trial. Similarly, minors do not have the maturity to reason fairly with their lawyers (or the prosecution) and therefore, they may find themselves at a disadvantaged position in the trial process. Similarly, they do not have the competence to stand trial in this regard too. Houlé (2009) reports that statistically the numbers of courts, which have declared juveniles (on a case-by-case basis) to be competent to stand trial, have increased. Usually, when a court says, juveniles are incompetent to stand trial; the offenders are tried in juvenile courts. Mentally ill patients are taken to mental hospitals where they are treated and expected to stand trial later (Latzer & McCord, 2010).

Insanity

Research studies done by Houlé (2009) show that mentally retarded patients plead insanity as a defense against crimes they committed when they were mentally ill. Insanity is often a defense that is often used by defense lawyers representing mentally ill patients, as opposed to defense lawyers representing juveniles. Therefore, insanity is a defense against mental illness as opposed to defense for juveniles. Houlé (2009) explains that mentally ill patients do not have the right cognitive development that ‘normal’ people have. Therefore, their crimes may not warrant capital punishment, like defendants who have a strong cognitive understanding of their crimes.

Recently, there has been a growing trend for American courts to decline insanity as a defense for mentally ill patients, but according to Houlé (2009); this trend is unfair to the quest for justice (for mentally ill patients). It is often the duty of the courts to establish a defendant’s mental state (to know whether insanity can be used as a defense or not). Abstractly, the court tries to establish whether the defendant understood what he or she was doing when they were committing the crime.

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According to Houlé (2009), the consistent decline of insanity defenses within the country’s judicial system is a threat for the defense of mentally ill patients because there are strong empirical evidence to show that mentally ill patients could be insane and therefore, fail to understand what they are doing when they commit a crime. Perhaps, the greatest public awareness case (involving insanity as a defense) was the acquittal of John Hinckley when he was accused of attempting to assassinate a US president (Houlé, 2009). Despite the public outcry and the legislative outrage against this ruling, it was very important for the courts to appear fair to all the parties. There should not be an open trend depicting the continual refusal to recognize insanity as a defense because mentally ill patients may not have the proper understanding of the crimes they commit. In this regard, Houlé (2009) believes that it is only right for courts to recognize insanity as a defense more so when the crime committed is a capital offense.

Ability to Form Criminal Intent

Courts are required to establish that a defendant can form criminal intent before exposing them to capital punishment. Houlé (2009) says Juveniles and mentally retarded offenders do not have the right cognitive skills that would enable them to commit crimes intentionally. Juveniles (for example) are usually vulnerable to the control of other influential people in their lives who may force them (or trick) into committing criminal offenses. For example, studies investigating the activities of criminal gangs have reported cases of children peddling drugs and committing other criminal offenses without understanding the implications of their actions (Latzer & McCord, 2010). Juveniles may therefore commit a crime to meet social or peer obligations without knowing the implications of their actions. To this extent, courts need to consider the defendant’s ability to form criminal intent.

Houlé (2009) explains that mentally ill patients are also rarely found to have the intention to commit capital offenses. In a disturbing case involving Clark v Arizona (which happened in 2006), a court prevented the defendants from submitting evidence to prove that they did not have the intention to kill a police officer (Latzer & McCord, 2010). This ruling was however changed because a new court declared that the Arizona court had no authority to prevent the defendant from submitting evidence to show that he did not have the intention to kill a police officer. It is therefore important to realize that mentally ill patients and juveniles often do not have the intention to commit criminal offenses because they are vulnerable.

Mitigation

Defendants usually have the right to provide evidence during sentencing (for the courts to consider what sentencing is appropriate for them). However, juveniles and mentally ill patients are not in a position to provide such evidence because they are incapable to do so. For example, mentally ill patients are often unable to give evidence showing that they were abused as children (or teenagers) and therefore, it is difficult for the courts to give them fair sentencing. Adults often explain their situation and receive a fair trial. Juveniles are also not often articulate enough to exercise this right and therefore, they find themselves at a disadvantage for receiving fair sentencing. Houlé (2009) demonstrates the lack of understanding between mental illnesses (or the immature cognitive development processes of minors) and mitigating factors among jurors. In other words, they often see mental illness as a go-ahead to sentence a defendant to death, instead of voting for life (for example).

Apart from the above-cited considerations, Houlé (2009) explains that mentally disabled defendants and juveniles often face other challenges in the trial process, which inhibit their effectiveness to defend themselves. For example, Houlé (2009) explains that mentally ill patients distrust their lawyers and find it more difficult to participate in their defense proceedings (compared to other defendants). For example, Houlé (2009) reports that research studies have shown a high incidence of mentally ill patients firing their lawyers and choosing to defend themselves. The same studies also show that there is a high incidence of mentally ill patients and juveniles failing to exercise their rights to appeal, thereby reducing their probability of getting a better representation and judgment during trials involving capital offenses.

Discussion

The constitutionality of imposing death sentences for juveniles and mentally retarded patients has always been contentious since the re-introduction of death penalties in 1976 (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012, p. 1). Comparing juveniles and mentally ill patients with adults (who have a mature intellectual development) is unfair. Therefore, it is equally unfair to impose the same sentences for mentally ill patients and juveniles because their culpability to commit the same crimes as consenting adults is not the same. Moreover, giving juveniles and mentally retarded patients the death penalty is unconstitutional because it infringes on their right not to receive cruel and unusual punishments. The Roper v Simmons case of 2005 is one example of the importance to differentiate the culpability of juvenile crimes against other crimes (committed by adults) because it protected minors against receiving the same sentencing as adults (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). Indeed, this ruling reinforced the view that capital punishment (for defendants under 18 years) violates a constitutional right not to receive cruel and unusual punishments.

The above court ruling is also similar to another court ruling (made in 2002) by the US Supreme Court, which stated that it was unconstitutional to impose death penalties on mentally ill patients. This court ruling confirms juveniles and mentally ill patients to be less culpable when committing capital offenses (compared to adults who have a mature cognitive understanding of their crimes) (Capital Punishment in Context, 2012). So far, many states in the US have followed this ruling and decided to exempt juveniles and mentally retarded patients from capital punishment, but there are still some states, which implement such cruel and unjust punishments.

The age and mental state of a defendant (when committing a crime) should be an important determinant of the type of sentencing a defendant should receive. Based on the evidence provided in this paper, juveniles and mentally retarded patients are less culpable for capital crimes (compared to adults who do not have any intellectual disabilities).

Juveniles and mentally retarded patients, therefore, have a weak capability to understand and process information (especially relating to their criminal offenses) and therefore, they should not be held with the same level of high responsibility as adults. Issues like the ability of a defendant to control reasoning, control impulses and comprehend the implications of their actions on others are important influences of a court’s willingness to impose capital punishment. This paper shows that such cognitive processes are lacking in juveniles and mentally retarded patients. Through this evidence, there is sufficient reason to exempt juveniles and mentally retarded patients from death sentences.

References

Capital Punishment in Context. (2012). The Death Penalty for Juveniles. Web.

Clear, T. & Reisig, M. (2012). American Corrections. New York: Cengage Learning.

Houlé, K. (2009). Mental Illness and the Death Penalty. Web.

Latzer, B. & McCord, D. (2010). Death Penalty Cases: Leading U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Capital Punishment. New York: Elsevier.

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DemoEssays. (2022, April 26). Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities. Retrieved from https://demoessays.com/death-penalty-for-juveniles-and-mental-disabilities/

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"Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities." DemoEssays, 26 Apr. 2022, demoessays.com/death-penalty-for-juveniles-and-mental-disabilities/.

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DemoEssays. (2022) 'Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities'. 26 April.

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DemoEssays. 2022. "Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities." April 26, 2022. https://demoessays.com/death-penalty-for-juveniles-and-mental-disabilities/.

1. DemoEssays. "Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities." April 26, 2022. https://demoessays.com/death-penalty-for-juveniles-and-mental-disabilities/.


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DemoEssays. "Death Penalty for Juveniles and Mental Disabilities." April 26, 2022. https://demoessays.com/death-penalty-for-juveniles-and-mental-disabilities/.