Mens Rea and Juvenile Culpability
Overview of Stanford v. Kentucky (1989)
The defendant, Kevin Stanford, was accused of murdering Barbel Poore on 7th January 1981. At the time of the felony, the accused was 17 years four months old. Stanford was accused of having sodomized and raped the deceased during their robbery at a fuel station where Poore worked (Cornell University Law School, 2007). After the robbery, Stanford and his accomplice kidnapped Poore and took her to a secluded place not far from the fuel station. It is in this place that Stanford is said to have shot Poore twice: one bullet to the back of the victim’s head which was preceded by a shot to the face. The two robbery suspects were said to have stolen 2 gallons of fuel, some cash, and 300 cigarette cartons (Cornell University Law School, 2007).
The first legal process in the prosecution of Kevin involved an evaluation on whether he should be tried as an adult despite being below the legal age. The prosecuting attorney highlighted the defendant’s past history of delinquency as sufficient reason for the seventeen-year old to be tried as an adult. The juvenile court in Kentucky that was hearing the case ruled that it was in the best interest of the minor and the society that he be tried as an adult.
After the certification that Kevin Stanford should be tried as an adult, the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled that he was guilty of murder, 1st degree robbery, 1st degree sodomy, handling stolen goods and murder (Cornell University Law School, 2007). The jury ruled that the sentence for Kevin’s offences should be the death penalty. The defense attorney argued that Stanford had a right not to be executed according to the constitution. The Supreme Court, however, retaliated that the initial ruling certifying that the defendant be tried as an adult was correct and justified. The court noted that the jury hearing the case had considered the possibility that the defendant could be rehabilitated but had chosen to pass the death sentence regardless of this mitigating factor. This showed that the jury acknowledged that they did not believe any program in the criminal justice system that was appropriate to correct Stanford (Clark, 2012, p. 39).
Overview of Atkins v. Virginia (2002)
On 16th August 1996, Daryl Atkins and William Jones kidnapped an airman, Eric Nesbitt, from a convenience store close to where they lived. After checking the victim’s wallet, the two kidnappers took Nesbitt to an ATM and made him to forcefully make a $200 withdrawal since they considered the $60 in the wallet ‘unsatisfactory’. The airman then pleaded with his abductors to let him go but they took him to a secluded area and shot him eight times. The bullet wounds resulted in the death of the airman.
The investigators identified the two suspects from footage collected from a CCTV camera at the ATM which showed them leaning across the victim to make the withdrawal. The investigator further collected forensic evidence that implicated Atkins and Jones from the victim’s car. The only missing evidence was regarding who between the two suspects shot Nesbitt; however, after interrogation it emerged that Atkins was the murderer. The other suspect, Jones, agreed to testify against Atkins in return that the prosecution does not ask for a death sentence for Jones’ charges.
The jury presiding over the case found the two suspects guilty and ruled that Atkins should receive capital punishment for his felonies (Liptak, 2008). The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the guilty verdict but reversed the capital punishment sentence on grounds that it violated the 8th Amendment. In this amendment, it is stated that execution and cruel punishment of mentally retarded persons is unacceptable in the United States.
Overview of Roper v. Simmons (2005)
Christopher Simmons was convicted of murder at the age of 17 years after confessing to having murdered Shirley Crook. The suspect together with his accomplices broke into the victim’s house, tied her up and then tossed her over the bridge (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). The jury considered the mitigating factors that Simmons did not have a previous delinquency record and that he was a minor; however, they still ruled that the defendant receives capital punishment. In response to this death sentence, the defendant’s lawyers appealed on the basis that their client was a minor and hence should not be executed according to the constitution. The appeal was heard by several appellant courts which all returned the same verdict; the defense attorneys, however, moved an appeal in the Supreme Court arguing that their client should not be sentenced to death based on a precedent set in Atkins v. Virginia (2002).
The Court of Appeal reversed the death sentence by arguing that execution of minors was against the 8th amendment. The defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The execution of minors is an issue which has raised considerable debate in the sociology field. The proponents of execution of minors argue that it is essential to set an example that murder is a serious offense (Garbarino, 1999, p. 108). Those against this argument, however, argue that the execution of minors and mentally retarded people goes against moral values upheld by society (Champion, 2004, p. 82). This argument is based on the knowledge that society is held together by accepted moral values, and hence the criminal justice system should not be allowed to violate these values.
The setting of the legal age at 18 years is based on the knowledge that most people below this age are not mature enough to make rational decisions. The same argument is made for not allowing mentally retarded people to participate in transactions, elections and other activities requiring rational decision making (Schwartz, 2000, p. 80). This argument is, however, challenged based on the maturity and rational behavior of some minors (Ahmed, 2004, p. 271). This argument is supported by calls by a section of Americans to lower the drinking age and the age at which a person can get a driving license (Clark, 2012, p. 102). This shows that in the current society, children are maturing faster than was previously the case; as a result, minors should also be held subject to execution when they commit capital offenses.
The human brain is a complex body organ which biologists have not been able to fully understand; however, the currently available knowledge and research studies show that mentally retarded people cannot be expected to make rational decisions (Champion, 2004, p. 71). This is because there are several impairments in the functioning of their brain (Kahneman and Tversky, 1984, p. 342).
The execution of minors is not a matter that should be decided based on emotions such as pity or revenge. It is, however, crucial to highlight that the court system was formulated to execute justice to both the offender and the victim. In cases such as Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), it was just that the offender received the death penalty. The same cannot be said of Rope v. Simmons (2005); this is because the defendant did not receive the death penalty despite the initial ruling that he be executed. This was not a just ruling since the same minor who the Court of Appeal declared should not be hanged as this would be cruel, planned and executed the murder of another person. The reliance of the court on the precedent set in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) was not correct since Atkins was mentally retarded which meant that he could in no way be expected to act rationally. It is, however, evident from previous activities conducted by minors such as driving that they can make rational decisions. The execution of minors should be allowed but the final decision be left to the discretion of the jury based on the prevailing circumstances.
Liptak, A. (2008). Virginia: Inmate Will Remain on Death Row. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/us/08brfs-INMATEWILLRE_BRF.html?_r=2&ref=us&oref=slogin&
Roper v. Simmons (2005)- Official U.S. Supreme Court opinion.
Cornell University Law School (2007). Stanford v. Kentucky (2007). Cornell University Law School. Retrieved from http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0492_0361_ZS.html
Champion, D. J. (2004). The Juvenile Justice System- Delinquency, Processing, and the Law. (4th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Clark, C. (2012). Addressing histories of trauma and victimization through treatment. Delmar, NY: The National GAINS Center.
Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination. The tyranny of Freedom American Psychologist, 55, 79-88.
Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1984). Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, 39, 341-350.
Garbarino, J. (1999). Lost boys: Why our sons turn violent and how we can save them. New York: Anchor Books.
Ahmed, E. (2004). Shame management and school bullying. J Res Crime Delinquency 41, 269–294.