Profession

Supreme Court bans death penalty for minors

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

By Andis Robeznieks — Posted March 21, 2005

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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.

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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)

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