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THOMPSON V. OKLAHOMA, 487 U. S. 815 (1988)

U.S. Supreme Court

Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)

Thompson v. Oklahoma

No. 86-6169

Argued November 9, 1987

Decided June 29, 1988

487 U.S. 815


Petitioner, when he was 15 years old, actively participated in a brutal murder. Because petitioner was a "child" as a matter of Oklahoma law, the District Attorney filed a statutory petition seeking to have him tried as an adult, which the trial court granted. He was then convicted and sentenced to death, and the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma affirmed.

Held: The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded.

724 P.2d 780, vacated and remanded.

JUSTICE STEVENS, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE MARSHALL, and JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that the "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibition of the Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the execution of a person who was under 16 years of age at the time of his or her offense. Pp. 487 U. S. 821-838.

(a) In determining whether the categorical Eighth Amendment prohibition applies, this Court must be guided by the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 356 U. S. 101, and, in so doing, must review relevant legislative enactments and jury determinations and consider the reasons why a civilized society may accept or reject the death penalty for a person less than 16 years old at the time of the crime. Pp. 487 U. S. 821-823.

(b) Relevant state statutes -- particularly those of the 18 States that have expressly considered the question of a minimum age for imposition of the death penalty, and have uniformly required that the defendant have attained at least the age of 16 at the time of the capital offense -- support the conclusion that it would offend civilized standards of decency to execute a person who was less than 16 years old at the time of his or her offense. That conclusion is also consistent with the views expressed by respected professional organizations, by other nations that share the Anglo-American heritage, and by the leading members of the Western European Community. Pp. 487 U. S. 823-831.

(c) The behavior of juries -- as evidenced by statistics demonstrating that, although between 18 and 20 persons under the age of 16 were executed during the first half of the 20th century, no such execution has taken place since 1948, despite the fact that thousands of murder cases

Page 487 U. S. 816

were tried during that period, and that only 5 of the 1,393 persons sentenced to death for willful homicide during the years 1982 through 1986 were less than 16 at the time of the offense -- leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty on a 15-year-old offender is now generally abhorrent to the conscience of the community. Pp. 487 U. S. 831-833.

(d) The juvenile's reduced culpability, and the fact that the application of the death penalty to this class of offenders does not measurably contribute to the essential purposes underlying the penalty, also support the conclusion that the imposition of the penalty on persons under the age of 16 constitutes unconstitutional punishment. This Court has already endorsed the proposition that less culpability should attach to a crime committed by a juvenile than to a comparable crime committed by an adult, since inexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct, while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult. Cf. Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U. S. 622; Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104. Given this lesser culpability, as well as the teenager's capacity for growth and society's fiduciary obligations to its children, the retributive purpose underlying the death penalty is simply inapplicable to the execution of a 15-year-old offender. Moreover, the deterrence rationale for the penalty is equally unacceptable with respect to such offenders, since statistics demonstrate that the vast majority of persons arrested for willful homicide are over 16 at the time of the offense, since the likelihood that the teenage offender has made the kind of cold-blooded, cost-benefit analysis that attaches any weight to the possibility of execution is virtually nonexistent, and since it is fanciful to believe that a 15-year-old would be deterred by the knowledge that a small number of persons his age have been executed during the 20th century. Pp. 487 U. S. 833-838.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR concluded that:

1. Although a national consensus forbidding the execution of any person for a crime committed before the age of 16 very likely does exist, this conclusion should not unnecessarily be adopted as a matter of constitutional law without better evidence than is before the Court. The fact that the 18 legislatures that have expressly considered the question have set the minimum age for capital punishment at 16 or above, coupled with the fact that 14 other States have rejected capital punishment completely, suggests the existence of a consensus. However, the Federal Government and 19 States have authorized capital punishment without setting any minimum age, and have also provided for some 15-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults. These laws appear to render 15-year-olds death eligible, and thus pose a real obstacle to finding a consensus.

Page 487 U. S. 817

Moreover, although the execution and sentencing statistics before the Court support the inference of a consensus, they are not dispositive, because they do not indicate how many juries have been asked to impose the death penalty on juvenile offenders or how many times prosecutors have exercised their discretion to refrain from seeking the penalty. Furthermore, granting the premise that adolescents are generally less blameworthy than adults who commit similar crimes, it does not necessarily follow that all 15-year-olds are incapable of the moral culpability that would justify the imposition of capital punishment. Nor is there evidence that 15-year-olds as a class are inherently incapable of being deterred from major crimes by the prospect of the death penalty. Thus, there is the danger that any inference of a societal consensus drawn from the evidence in this case might be mistaken. Rather than rely on its inevitably subjective judgment about the best age at which to draw a line forbidding capital punishment, this Court should if possible await the express judgments of additional legislatures. Pp. 487 U. S. 849-855.

2. Petitioner's sentence must be set aside on the ground that -- whereas the Eighth Amendment requires special care and deliberation in decisions that may lead to the imposition of the death penalty -- there is considerable risk that, in enacting a statute authorizing capital punishment for murder without setting any minimum age, and in separately providing that juvenile defendants may be treated as adults in some circumstances, the Oklahoma Legislature either did not realize that its actions would effectively render 15-year-olds death-eligible, or did not give the question the serious consideration that would have been reflected in the explicit choice of a particular minimum age. Because the available evidence suggests a national consensus forbidding the imposition of capital punishment for crimes committed before the age of 16, petitioner and others whose crimes were committed before that age may not be executed pursuant to a capital punishment statute that specifies no minimum age. Pp. 487 U. S. 856-859.

STEVENS, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 487 U. S. 848. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 487 U. S. 859. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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