Why Is The US Still Executing Teenage Offenders?June 12, 2012
[pullquote text=”18 and 19 and 20 year-olds are not considered responsible enough decision makers to drink legally, yet they can be held fully responsible for their crimes and sentenced to the ultimate, irreversible punishment of death.”]Texas is preparing to execute Yokamon Hearn on July 18th. If his execution is carried out, he would become the 483rd person put to death since Texas resumed executions in 1982.
Yokamon Hearn was 19 years old when he and 3 other youths set out to steal a car. They ended up shooting and killing Frank Meziere, a 23-year-old stockbroker. All four defendants were charged with capital murder, but the other three plead guilty and received deals. One got life imprisonment, the other two got ten years for aggravated robbery.
Yokamon Hearn was a teenager at the time of his crime, but not a juvenile. Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of Child lays out the international standard for not executing juvenile offenders, defined as those who were under 18 at the time of the crime. (The U.S. is the only country except for Somalia that has not ratified this treaty.)
Likewise, Part III of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the U.S. is a Party) also calls on states to prohibit the execution of offenders under 18. Upon ratification of the this treaty in 1992, the U.S. explicitly reserved for itself the right to ignore this provision and continue to kill these young offenders. But finally in 2005, with the Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. put an end to executions of anyone under 18 at the time of the crime.
None of this helps Yokamon Hearn. Yet eighteen is an arbitrary age. There is no magic age at which one suddenly becomes a responsible adult, fully capable of making smart, informed decisions and not acting on impulse. Recent science tells us that brain development continues well into one’s 20’s, as does psychological and emotional maturation.
18 and 19 and 20 year-olds are not considered responsible enough decision makers to drink legally, yet they can be held fully responsible for their crimes and sentenced to the ultimate, irreversible punishment of death. On he one hand, we seek to protect our youth from their immaturity; on the other we punish (and even kill) them for it.
The fact that their development has not been fully realized also means that young offenders who may have carried out impulsive, thoughtless actions as teenagers are more likely than their adult counterparts to successfully change and redeem their past mistakes. Executing people for crimes committed when they were teenagers ignores the fact that, in prison, they can grow up and become productive, functioning members of society.
Despite extensive scientific evidence of the differences between youth and adults related to culpability, decision making, and susceptibility to peer pressure, U.S. states continue to execute people for crimes committed when they were teenagers. Since 1982 Texas alone has killed at least 70 people who were aged 17, 18 or 19 at the time of their crime. This practice needs to stop immediately.