History of Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders

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In 1642, Thomas Granger, 16, was hanged in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, for having sex with a mare, a cow and some goats. It was America’s first documented execution of a child offender and the debut of the juvenile death penalty. The practice would end 363 years later after the deaths of at least 366 child offenders — people under the age of 18 at the time of their crime.

The youngest girl to be executed was 12-year-old Hannah Ocuish, a Native American child who was hanged in Connecticut in 1786 for murdering a 6-year-old white girl.

hub_arrow_2-01James Arcene, a Cherokee, was the youngest ever to be condemned. He was hanged in Arkansas in 1885 for a murder-robbery he helped commit when he was 10. The execution came 13 years later (not out of deference for his young age, but because it took that long for lawmen to arrest him).

Others were rushed to their deaths.

In 1944, African-American George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in South Carolina when he was 14, making him the youngest person executed in the 20th century.

Stinney died less than three months after his arrest for allegedly murdering two white girls in small-town South Carolina. His trial took a day. An all-white jury deliberated 10 minutes before finding him guilty. His lawyer didn’t file an appeal. (In 2014, a South Carolina court took the remarkable step of exonerating him posthumously, finding that he’d suffered an egregious miscarriage of justice.)

In 1964, Texas executed African-American youth James Echols — the last teen to get the death penalty for rape. Echols’ victim was a white woman. He was put to death at 19, two years after the crime.

After Echols’ execution, laws allowing the penalty stayed on the books but weren’t used for the next 21 years. Capital punishment’s popularity was waning. States held back from imposing it, waiting to see how court challenges would resolve arguments that it was unconstitutional.

Abolitionists asserted that the penalty was meted out to a fractional number of teens who — for reasons of discrimination, caprice, fear, rage, tough-on-crime politics or some inchoate loathing — were punished far more harshly than scores of other offenders who committed equally horrific or worse crimes.

[Related: Dying Inside: Teenage Murderer James Morgan Wasn’t Executed, But Is His Life Worth Living?]

By 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia largely agreed. Death sentences for all age groups were imposed so arbitrarily — so “wantonly” and “freakishly” as Justice Potter Stewart put it — that they violated the Eighth Amendment, the court held. The ruling in effect struck down all death penalty statutes as they then existed, but it allowed states an opportunity to craft new, less discriminatory laws.

More than 30 states enacted statutes that would pass judicial muster. The modern era of the death penalty began. By 1974, teenagers once again arrived on death row.

Amy Linn

Christopher Simmons

They would leave it for good, three decades later. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed juvenile death sentences in 2005 in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons, brought by Christopher Simmons, a Missouri teen who was 17 when he and a friend murdered a woman. Executing juvenile offenders was cruel and unusual punishment, the high court found. Teens are inherently capable of rehabilitating themselves; they are too immature to be considered as culpable as adults, the justices decided.

The Simmons ruling spared the lives of 72 juvenile offenders still on death row at the time. For others, the decision came too late.


BY THE NUMBERS

The juvenile death penalty in the modern era, 1974-2005

Number of juvenile offenders executed between 1974 and 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the punishment: 22

Number sentenced to death: 226

Percent executed who were African American: 50

Percent of African Americans in population as a whole: 12

Number of executed who were white: 10

Who were Hispanic: 1

Of all executed teens, percent whose victims were white: 81

Of executed blacks, percent convicted by all-white juries: approximately 30

Approximate number of former death row teens who are behind bars today, resentenced to life in prison with little or no possibility of parole: 187

Who are now almost 60 years old: 9

Number of juvenile offenders exonerated: 3

Years that juvenile exoneree Kwame Ajamu spent in an Ohio prison for a murder he did not commit: 28

That Leon Brown spent in a North Carolina prison for a rape and murder he did not commit: 30

Male juvenile offenders sentenced to death: 221

Female: 5

Number of females executed: 0

Percent of teen offenders executed in Texas: 60

Percent executed in Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma combined: 81

Year the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for offenders younger than 16: 1988

Aside from the United States, number of United Nation members today that have refused to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans the juvenile death penalty and protects children’s health and welfare: 0

Number of countries other than the United States that officially and publicly sanctioned the juvenile death penalty in 2005: 0

Percent on death row in 2005 who were people of color: 66

About 95 percent or more of death row inmates of all ages experienced at least one (and up to 9 or more) of the following:

  • physical, sexual, psychological abuse;
  • neglect, poverty, trauma, mental disorders, illiteracy, substance abuse;
  • intellectual or neurological impairments, head injuries;
  • witnessing family violence;
  • parental substance abuse or mental illness;
  • death or absence of parent.

 

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