Singing Loudly: Roper 1: Introduction: Significance of Domestic and International Law Jurisprudence

Singing Loudly

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Roper 1: Introduction: Significance of Domestic and International Law Jurisprudence

To start with you have to understand how the Supreme Court decides cases where they determine if the death penalty should be used. With the unique situation of juveniles, the Supreme Court has to look at both adult and juvenile death penalty cases to inform both the factual and legal prongs of their analysis. The factual information will inform a comparison between societal views today and societal views yesterday concerning the death penalty. Whereas the legal prong looks at comparisons arising from the evolving standards of decency test and also at the bright line tests defined in previous cases. The use of international law, while different than domestic law, also contains both a factual and legal prong. The factual analysis of international law is used as a factor to determine the evolving standards of decency test. The legal prong is an ancillary look at whether or not America is breaching its international legal obligations by continuing the use of the juvenile death penalty.


Adolescents play a unique function of American society, which has caused them to be treated differently by society and the courts. This uniqueness derives from the awkward position of walking the line between childhood and maturity, which makes it difficult to determine their needs. The Supreme Court has decided many cases that deal with adolescents but those decisions are not always consistent in defining the place an adolescent holds in America. In some situations teens have had their rights minimized, but in criminal law, in many cases, teens have been expected to act like adults and, like adults, are held responsible for their actions. In this post several decisions will be analyzed to show both factual and legal determinations of teenagers in an attempt understand where Kennedy was coming from in the Roper decision.

Domestic: Legal Framework

There are three major cases that lay out the legal position of juveniles under our current criminal system. The legal framework revolves around what is allowed by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The first case where the Supreme Court addressed the special concerns of the juvenile death penalty was in Eddings v. Oklahoma. In Eddings, the Supreme Court was asked to consider the application of the death penalty to a defendant who was sixteen years old at the time of his offense. Ultimately, the Court vacated Edding’s death sentence because it was imposed without considering all mitigating factors. In particular, the trial court had refused to hear mitigating factors concerning the defendant’s family history of abuse and emotional distress. The Supreme Court was concerned that leaving such information out of consideration would be especially damaging when the defendant is so young. Justice Powell, writing for the court, reasoned that “when the defendant was 16-years-old at the time of the offense there can be no doubt that evidence of a turbulent family history, of beatings by a harsh father, and of severe emotional disturbance is particularly relevant.

Six years later, in Thompson v. Oklahoma, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of a person who was under sixteen years old when he or she committed the capital offense. The reason the death penalty for those under sixteen was unconstitutional was because it, according to Justice Stevens, offended our standards of decency. He elaborated on this by explaining the reasons it offended “contemporary standards of decency” was that “such a young person is not capable of acting with the degree of culpability that can justify the ultimate penalty.” The opinion, however, left open the question of whether the sixteen and seventeen-year-old adolescents may be sentenced to death without violating the Eight Amendment.

A year later the Supreme Court answered that question in Stanford v. Kentucky. Justice Scalia delivered a plurality opinion that held that a death sentence for a defendant who had committed a crime at the age of sixteen or seventeen does not violate the Eighth Amendment. Such a sentence, the plurality concluded, was not cruel or unusual; only a minority of states chose to prohibit capital punishment for sixteen or seventeen-year-old offenders. The specific factual analysis for these cases will be explained in the next post that deals with what factual information informs the legal decisions by the courts.

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