Supreme Court bans death penalty for minors

Dissenting opinion questions court's ability to judge scientific evidence.

By Andis Robeznieks — Posted March 21, 2005

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

Physicians praised the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision to ban states from executing juvenile offenders. Doctors say the court correctly recognized the scientific evidence showing that adolescent minds underestimate risks, overvalue short-term benefits and act more impulsively than adults.

"We have good research and evidence that demonstrates that the brains of adolescents function in different ways than brains of adults," said Vermont-based psychiatrist David Fassler, MD, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry representative to the AMA House of Delegates. "I think the emerging scientific consensus made a significant difference in this case."

The AMA, AACAP and several other medical societies provided justices with the scientific evidence in a friend-of-the-court brief that they filed in the case that was decided March 1, Roper v. Simmons.

Dr. Fassler said a number of issues physicians raised in their brief were noted in the court's decision. For example, the court touched on research showing that "adolescents are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior."

"As any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies ... tend to confirm, 'A lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults,' " Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's majority. " 'These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.' "

But Justice Antonin Scalia questioned the validity of the scientific evidence and justices' ability to evaluate it. "Given the nuances of scientific methodology and conflicting views, courts -- which can only consider the limited evidence on the record before them -- are ill-equipped to determine which view of science is the right one," Scalia wrote in the dissent.

The court's ruling overturned the death sentence for Christopher Simmons of Missouri, who was convicted of a murder committed when he was 17. The decision means that 73 juvenile offenders in 12 states will be removed from death row, the AMA said.

Back to top

External links

Roper v. Simmons, U.S. Supreme Court decision, March 1, in pdf (link)

AMA on the Supreme Court's ruling to ban juvenile death penalty (link)

Friend-of-the-court brief filed in Roper v. Simmons by American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Assn., American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, and the National Mental Health Assn., in pdf (link)

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn