Medical groups seek end to death penalty for minors

Their legal brief is one of dozens filed by groups worldwide that call for a U.S. ban on this punishment.

By Tanya Albert amednews correspondent — Posted Aug. 23, 2004

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The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the legality of sentencing children younger than 18 to death, and the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Assn. and other medical societies are asking justices to put an end to the practice.

In a friend-of-the court brief filed in the case of a 17-year-old death-row inmate challenging his sentence, the medical groups say adolescents are less developed than adults and should not be held to the same standards.

"Our society understands the differences between adolescents and adults when it comes to driving, drinking alcohol and smoking, voting, and marriage," said Robert Weinstock, MD, a member of the APA's Committee on Judicial Action. "We are contradicting ourselves to deny these privileges to adolescents, yet still enforce the ultimate punishment on them -- death."

The medical associations argue that science has shown that adolescents -- even at age 16 or 17 -- underestimate risks and overestimate short-term benefits. Studies also have shown that teens are more emotionally volatile and more susceptible to stressful situations, they wrote.

"This court has held that executing a mentally retarded offender is unlikely to 'affect the cold calculus that precedes the decision of other potential murders,' " the brief states. "The same is true of older 'adolescents' whose calculus weighs inputs -- particularly, future consequences -- differently from adults, and far differently from the cold-blooded adult murderer for whom the death penalty is reserved."

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case, Roper v. Simmons, in its term that begins in October. The court will decide whether to uphold the Missouri Supreme Court's decision that overturned Christopher Simmons' death sentence on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, National Assn. of Social Workers, Missouri Chapter of the National Assn. of Social Workers, and the National Mental Health Assn. also have signed on to the brief. Dozens of other organizations from around the world have weighed in on the case and are calling for the United States to ban the death penalty for minors.

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External links

AMA brief filed in Roper v. Simmons, in pdf (link)

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