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The Abolishment of the Juvenile Death Penalty

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The Abolishment of the Juvenile Death Penalty

In South Carolina on October 29, 1977, what started out as armed robbery led to the death by execution of 17 year old James Terry Roach. Roach and two of his friends, Shaw and Mahaffey, committed armed robbery against 17 year old Thomas Taylor and 14-year-old Carlotta Hartness. Roach was armed with a rifle and demanded money from the couple. Taylor handed over his wallet and soon after was shot and killed by Roach. Roach and his two friends kidnapped Hartness and raped her on a dirt road nearby. The three boys then conspired on who was going to kill Hartness and Roach volunteered. Hartness begged for her life, but was shot many times in her head by Roach. She was then shot again by Mahaffey (Homan, 1986).

16 year old Mahaffey agreed to become a witness in exchange for not receiving the death penalty. Roach and Shaw both received the death penalty on December 16, 1977. Shaw was 22 years old and legally an adult at the time of the crimes. However, Roach was 17 years old at the time and was executed, as a minor, on January 10, 1986 (Homan, 1986).

This case caused a great deal of controversy because Roach was not an adult at the time of the crime and yet he received the death penalty. There were many other factors, such as psychological problems, that were not appropriately considered as well. However, the debate as to whether the death penalty should be an option for juveniles under the age of 18 was a huge topic over the years. This paper will give an overview of the purpose, statistics, history, legal arguments, public opinion, arguments for and against the juvenile death penalty including: neurological debates, age, deterrence arguments, rehabilitation, and how these factors led to the abolishment of the juvenile death penalty.


The primary purpose of the juvenile justice system is to provide treatment, rehabilitation, and care programs for juvenile offenders in order to prevent them from breaking the laws (Cothern, 2000). What this purpose neglects to mention is if using the juvenile death penalty as a punishment for juveniles under the age of 18 is appropriate. If the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to provide treatment and care programs that help juveniles, in no way is sentencing a juvenile to death appropriate. Sentencing a juvenile to death is saying it is justified to kill someone that has committed a crime. Oddly enough, when a juvenile kills someone, it is a crime. This just makes the juvenile justice system's standards seem somewhat imbalanced.


In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty as constitutional. After 16 years, the court first addressed the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty. Only a few years later, a majority of the court held that the juvenile death penalty was not unconstitutional (Crosby et al., 1995). This led to juvenile offenders under the age of 18 to be sentenced to death. The earliest execution of a juvenile offender in the United States was in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1962 (Streib, 2004). Since then, at least 361 juveniles have been executed under the age of 18. Children as young as 10 years old have been executed for criminal acts (Vogel, 2003). 10 year old Jason Arcene from Arkansas was the youngest juvenile offender executed in the United States for engaging in robbery and murder (Strater, 1995). Several 13 and 14 year old children have received the death penalty as well. (Vogel, 2003). It is hard to imagine a child as young as 10 years old being executed for any crime. Moreover, if a 10 year old child is capable of committing murder then there are definitely some issues going on inside that child that desperately need attention. When the death penalty is allowed to be implemented on children as young as 10 years old, something needs to be done.


There has been a 1.8 percent rate of confirmed executions out of 20,000 since 1608. In addition to this, 69 percent have been African American while 3.5 percent were female (Vogel, 2003). In the 20th century, about 175 juveniles were executed. In 1976 more executions took place when the court ruled that the death penalty was not unconstitutional. By the 1990's, a total of 287 juveniles were executed in the United Sates for participating in criminal activities (Strater, 1995). In June 2000, 74 adults, ages 18-41, were still facing the death penalty based on crimes they committed as juveniles. All of these adults are male, over half of them are minority and committed the crime at age 17(Cothern, 2000). This illustrates an issue bigger than just the execution of juveniles. These findings are significant because the fact that minorities, specifically Africans Americans, and mostly males were targeted makes people question whether or not race and gender play a role in the implementation of the juvenile death penalty.

Legal Arguments

The Eighth Amendment. Many people argue that the juvenile death penalty is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment states that the government cannot inflict cruel and unusual punishment on United States citizens (Aronson, 2007). Many people see the death penalty alone as cruel and unusual punishment and believe that it should be unconstitutional. On the other hand, some people see the death penalty as a justified punishment. However, imposing the death penalty on juveniles is not a justified punishment, it is cruel. Killing a juvenile for justification purposes punishment is very unusual. Rather than immediately receiving the death penalty, a juvenile should receive some type of treatment for their actions.

Case law. There are several of cases involved in the juvenile death penalty. A few of the important cases will be highlighted in this section. In 1972, Furman v. Georgia ruled the death penalty as constitutional (Crosby et al., 1995). This made is acceptable for anyone to receive the death penalty. In 1988, Thompson v. Oklahoma ruled that youth under the age of 16 could not receive the death penalty unless the state in which the juvenile was convicted had a preexisting age limit according to its death penalty statute (Vogel, 2003). Following this ruling, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), it was ruled that the death penalty was constitutional for 16 and 17 year olds regardless of any death penalty statues in the United States (Vogel, 2003). This makes age a mitigating factor. Meaning if two juveniles commit the same crime, one juvenile may not be held responsible if he or she is younger than 16, yet the juvenile over the age of 16 is executed. The case involving 17 year old serial sniper Lee Malvo caused much controversy over the juvenile death penalty. Lee Malvo and an adult accomplice



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