Sunday, December 11, 2005

Roper v. Simmons v. Common Sense

On the first day of March 2005, the Supreme Court decided in the closest of votes that the death penalty cannot be handed down to offenders who were juveniles at the time of their offense. The basis of this decision was the Eighth Amendment – particularly the “cruel and unusual” clause. This particular case concerned Christopher Simmons, who was convicted of the brutal, premeditated murder of Shirley Crook. His legal team argued that, given the legal precedent of overturning the death penalty for the mentally ill, so too should Simmons’ sentence be reduced due to the undeveloped mind of the typical juvenile. The resulting 5-4 decision in Simmons’ favor not only spared his life, but the lives of no less than seventy-three other death row inmates (Kaplan). The court was right to decide that a juvenile cannot be faced with the full consequences, as the accused juveniles often lack the mental capacity to understand their actions. There are many mitigating factors involving the nature of youth itself that have led many people to believe that minors are not entirely responsible for their actions.

Baytown is a suburb of Houston and happens to be my home town. It has a population of about 70,000, with the mentality of a typical Southern small town. It came as no surprise, then, that the entire city couldn’t stop talking about a single act of treachery. Nobody heard the two gunshots fired, even on quiet Copper Creek Street. Not a single neighbor knew that a .38 caliber pistol had just ended the lives of the elderly Joyce and James Carroll, while they pleaded for their lives on their knees in their garage. No one expected the neighborhood, or even the whole city, to be shaken at it’s foundation by the quiet, unassuming young man next door.

The reaction was a whirlwind of accusations and hate, fueled by both the local media and the parents of Robert Acuna, the gunman. While the seventeen year old sat in jail, the public cried for his blood. The local newspaper, the Baytown Sun, was flooded with letters calling for his execution. It was only natural that the prosecution in his case would do likewise.

A jury not of his peers, as he was only a minor, convicted him within three hours of deliberation, and soon he was sentenced to face lethal injection. “He couldn’t buy cigarettes. He couldn’t vote or anything else. It’s absurd that they have as seventeen the age at which your life can be taken,” said his devastated mother, Barbara Acuna (Crowe).

One year and four months later, the Supreme Court sided with Barbara Acuna, commuting her son’s sentence to life in prison. According to a merciful law, rare for Texas, in forty years, Robert Acuna will be eligible for parole after forty years.

America was divided over this landmark Supreme Court decision, and it was the talking point of every pundit with ten seconds of air time, as well as heated dinner conversation across Middle America. The divisive nature of this topic made itself evident in the opinions of each Supreme Court justice faced with this decision.

Conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor presented dissenting opinions. O’Connor said,

“…[T]he rule decreed by the Court rests, ultimately, on its independent moral
judgment that death is a disproportionately severe punishment for any
seventeen-year-old offender. I do not subscribe to this judgment. Adolescents as
a class are undoubtedly less mature, and therefore less culpable for misconduct,
than adults. But the Court has adduced no evidence for impeaching the seemingly
reasonable conclusion reached by many state legislatures: that at least some
seventeen-year-old murderers are sufficiently mature to deserve the death
penalty in an appropriate case. Nor has it been shown that capital sentencing
juries are incapable of accurately assessing a youthful defendant’s maturity or
of giving due weight to the mitigating characteristics associated with youth”

Justice O’Connor essentially argues that the “evolving standard of decency” is a weak foundation for landmark cases. She calls for more evidence that a clear majority of Americans believe that minors aren’t to be held fully responsible for heinous crimes. O’Connor’s proposal is that the Court should leave it to the juries to decide on a case-by-case basis. While admitting that some minors are incapable of understanding their actions, she maintains that it is still appropriate to sentence others to death.
Justice Antonin Scalia concurs:
“What a mockery today’s opinion makes of (founding father Alexander) Hamilton’s
expectation (that the Court cannot overstep it’s boundaries), announcing the
Court’s conclusion that the meaning of our Constitution has changed over the
past fifteen years – not, mind you, that this Court’s decision fifteen years ago
was wrong, but that the Constitution has changed. The Court reaches this
implausible result by purporting to advert, not to the original meaning of the
Eight Amendment, but to “the evolving standards of decency,” of our national
society. It then finds, on the flimsiest of grounds, that a national consensus
which could not be perceived in our people’s laws barely fifteen years ago now
solidly exists. Worse still, the Court says in so many words that what our
people’s laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter: “[I]n
the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the questions of the
acceptability of the death penalty under the Eight Amendment.” The Court thus
proclaims itself sole arbiter of our Nation’s moral standards – and in the
course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from
the views of foreign courts and legislatures. Because I do not believe that the
meaning of our Eight Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of
our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members
of this Court and like-minded foreigners, I dissent” (Scalia).

Scalia is much less mild-mannered than O’Connor in his dissent. He touches on a key issue in the matter of the legalized death penalty: the role of foreign influence. Not only does he deny the evidence of public support of the Court’s decision, he blames the idea of “evolving standards of decency” on international pressure. This belief isn’t completely unfounded, as Justice Kennedy states that, “it was proper that the court acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.” Scalia’s argument shows leniency and credence of foreign policies to be signs of weakness, not progress. Furthermore, he seems to view such a radical change in law to be an act of judicial activism. His argument stems more from his fear of the Court’s potential role in the justice system than in any personal beliefs about the facts of the case.

On the other hand, Kennedy was part of the five-vote majority. He, too, submitted his opinion before the Court:
“An unacceptable likelihood existed that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of
any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a
matter of course, even where the juvenile offender’s objective immaturity,
vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe
than death, for in some cases a defendant’s youth might even be counted against
the defendant, where, for example, in the instant death-penalty case, the
prosecutor had argued that the youth of the defendant, who was seventeen years
old when he had committed the homicide in question, was aggravating rather than
mitigating” (Kennedy).

Kennedy, along with Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, believed that the possibility of minor status being used against a defendant was intolerable. Their opinion states that the minor status of the defendant should be a deterrent from capital punishment, as it takes away from the true depravity of the crime. To them, a minor committing the same crime as a legal adult does not necessarily make the nature of the crimes the same; the minor’s undeveloped psyche doesn’t have the capacity to be truly depraved.

The majority opinion acknowledged three characteristics of juveniles that are true only for juveniles, and not people of majority age. It was their opinion that minors cannot face the same consequences as adults because,

1.) “Juveniles’ susceptibility to immature and irresponsible behavior means ‘their
irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an
2.) “Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate
surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for
failing to escape negative influences in their whole
3.) “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is
less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile
is evidence of irretrievably depraved character” (Kennedy 7).

Susceptibility to Immature and Irresponsible Behavior

Arlene Kaplan, contributor for the Psychiatric Times, summarized the arguments made in court:

“Adolescents rely, for certain tasks, more than adults, on the amygdala, the
area of the brain associated with primitive impulses of aggression, anger, and
fear,” the brief said. “Adults, on the other hand, tend to process similar
information through the frontal cortex, a cerebral area associated with impulse
control and good judgment. Second, the regions of the brain associated with
impulse control, risk assessment and moral reasoning develop last, after late
adolescence” (Kaplan).
This is a very substantial finding. While it’s generally agreed that the actions of most juvenile offenders are direct results of a troubled childhood, the idea of biology being responsible for this violence takes the burden of guilt away from the individual and places it squarely on nature.
Several years before Roper v. Simmons, it was ruled that the mentally retarded cannot be sentenced to death (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002). Is it so much of a stretch to compare the mind that will never develop to the mind that has yet to develop?

In fact, this inability to develop “moral reasoning” was put on display in the trial of the aforementioned Robert Acuna. Several people described him as nonchalant and apathetic. He was even reported to have laughed at the most inappropriate moments. The prosecutor went so far as to remark that Acuna “still didn’t quite get the magnitude of everything he did” (Liptak). It was this same prosecutor that had just recommended, and had that recommendation satisfied, that Acuna be sentenced to death. What an unfortunate miscarriage of justice for a prosecutor to recommend the harshest of penalties, only to speak volumes in his defense once the verdict is in. What shape is our justice system in when even the prosecution is forced to deny common sense?

Acuna, along with the other juvenile offenders, has trouble discerning reality from their own perspective of the world. “I’ve seen all this stuff on TV,” he said, “but then I realize there’s no TV screen” (Turner).

Dartmouth psychology professor Abigail Baird,
“…completed a study commonly known as the ‘Good Idea, Bad Idea’ test. She
created a list of actions, and requested that subjects press one button if they
believed the behavior to be a good idea, and a second if they believed it to be
bad. When monitoring brain activity during these decisions, Baird found that
adults had a nearly thoughtless, knee-jerk reaction to potentially dangerous
activities. Teens, especially males, did not have this visceral reaction.
Instead, they considered the pros and cons of activities immediately shunned by
their elders, like riding a bicycle down a set of stairs. Because of these
cognitive disparities, those appealing Simmons’ conviction believe that teenage
criminals should not be punished identically to adult criminals” (Mitchell).
Professor Baird’s experiment is conclusive. In addition to the expert opinions claiming that juveniles don’t understand their impulsive behavior, this study shows that minors may tend to rationalize the irrational. Where a fully-developed adult may instinctively decide to file for unemployment if they can’t pay the bills, a juvenile may act on the foreign influences in addition to the lack of judgmental development and resort to criminal activity.

Lack of Control of Their Own Lives

Christopher Simmons, the juvenile whose appeal brought this issue back to life, was raised in an unstable environment that included neglect, abuse, and possible mental illness (Schenwar). The inability of minors to simply change their own lives is certainly one of the mitigating factors that Kennedy considered when making his decision. Ileana Arias, Ph.D., speaking to Congress on behalf of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) said,

“CDC research demonstrates that parents’ role in the development of children and
child maltreatment are important precursors to factors that place youth at
greater risk of violence as they mature into adolescence. Child maltreatment
includes neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse of a child.
Early interventions that address child maltreatment and the parents’ role in the
healthy development of children are a critical aspect of a comprehensive effort
to prevent youth violence. Research indicates that parental engagement and
monitoring of youth activities, including knowing the child’s friends and
interacting with the parents of the friends, is a significant protective factor
in preventing youth violence”(Arias).

Common sense, right? The argument of social inferiority may be just as formidable as one of biological inferiority. No one denies the direct correlation between one’s abusive childhood and one’s abusive actions. Is it likely that Christopher Simmons would have so impulsively killed Shirley Crook had he been given an environment full of love and support rather than hate when he was a child? The neurological inferiority of Simmons, coupled with his troubled background, could have combined to form a volatile mixture of confusion and malice. If he cannot comprehend the choice he faces, or even the fact that he’s facing it, how could he be expected to answer for his crime? Correction, not simple punishment, is the answer.

Struggle to Find Self-Identity

The struggle of troubled minors to find their niche could be the result of the first two mitigating factors, in that the minor may not only lack the mental capacity to make the right choices, but that the instability of the home could cause the minor to look for a sense of identity in an unhealthy place, whether in the mind or in society. The most obvious place in society would be a gang. This was the one factor, above all others, that was most commonly believed to be the catalyst in Robert Acuna’s case. He had very few friends, and he certainly didn’t enjoy much of a social life that others could see. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that an impressionable minor may fall in with the wrong crowd given the opportunity and lack of an attractive alternative. He worked a dead-end fast food job, and by all accounts had grown tired of school.
Juveniles don’t have careers; they have servile jobs. Juveniles don’t decide each morning whether to attend school or not; it’s compulsory. These inherent properties of youth that most members of society simply grow out of can be daunting to someone with both a damaged and undeveloped psyche.

While the Supreme Court has already made its decision, the debate endures today. The worst way one could approach this subject is boiling it down to talking points or left wing vs. right wing. There are many factors contributing to the mental state of a minor, including minor status itself. However, it becomes clear after weighing the evidence that juvenile offenders are not fully aware of their crimes, whether it is a result of biology, sociology, or both. The abolition of capital punishment for minors is a great step toward progressive ideals in the American justice system and gaining legitimacy on the international stage. Contrary to Scalia’s opinion, it s not a matter of whether the Court should or shouldn’t be setting the precedent; it’s a matter of the Court dispensing common sense when presented with a pressing national issue.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

My Left Shoe is walking

My Left Shoe is moving to a new blog. I don't really feel like blogging daily, and I'm sure my hits will start dropping dramatically (it's already started, actually) with my negligence. So, I've decided to sort of team up with a friend of mine, Ron. You can find his blog (and mine, in a manner of speaking) here.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Worse than we thought

From Yahoo News:

"We don't know what the next big thing will be. When the manufacturing jobs were going away, we could tell people to look for tech jobs. But now the tech jobs are moving away, too," said Lori G. Kletzer, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "What's the comparative advantage that America retains? We don't have the answer to that. It gives us a very insecure feeling."

The government doesn't specifically track how many jobs have gone away. But other statistics more than hint at the scope of the change. For example, there are now about as many temporary, on-call or contract workers in the United States as there are members of labor unions. Another sign: Of the 2.7 million jobs lost during and after the recession in 2001, the vast majority have been restructured out of existence, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

My dad is a web developer, who's been working his whole adult life toward his career. He's also been laid off twice in the past year. The best my family can hope for now is a temp job here and there. As I type this out, he's in Dallas (a six hour drive) doing an interview because it's the closest job he could find.

Campaigning in the poverty-stricken farmlands of the midwest, Bush tells the residents "I can hear you". It's a sad state of the affairs when the best consolation the president can offer is "I promise I'm not completely ignoring you... this year."

Friday, September 10, 2004

Casual Friday 9/10

President Bush says he has just one question for the American voters, 'Is the rich person you're working for better off now than they were four years ago?'
Jay Leno

President Bush unveiled his new economic stimulus plan this week. It was reported that if the plan passes the president himself would save $44,000 in taxes, Dick Cheney would save $327,000, and you could afford to take the whole family down to Burger King to pick up job applications.
Tina Fey

President Bush's economic plan will create 2.5 million new jobs. The bad news, they are all for Iraqi soldiers.
Craig Kilborn

The White House has now released military documents that they say prove George Bush met his requirements for the National Guard. Big deal, we've got documents that prove Al Gore won the election.
Jay Leno

President Bush said he was 'troubled' by gay people getting married in San Francisco. He said on important issues like this the people should make the decision, not judges. Unless of course we're choosing a president, then he prefers judges.
Jay Leno

Jesus Christ!

From Mad magazine, courtesy of Eschaton:

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Freedom Fries with W Ketchup

I wish I were kidding.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Casual Friday

The epitome of wit

President Bush announced he has a five-point strategy for getting out of Iraq. Points six through 10 will be handled by the Kerry administration.
David Letterman

The President and Mrs. Bush were on 'Larry King' last night and the president said, 'America is absolutely better off today than it was 4 years ago.' Then he said, 'Did I say America? I meant Chevron.'
Bill Maher

President Bush's campaign is now attacking John Kerry for throwing away some of his medals to protest the Vietnam War. Bush did not have any medals to throw away, but in his defense he did have all his services records thrown out.
Jay Leno

According to the recent polls, Bush has a slight lead over John Kerry. So today, Bush hung a banner over the White House saying, 'Mission Accomplished.'
David Letterman

President Bush is not fazed by other candidates' war records. He said, I may have not fought in Vietnam, but I created one.
Craig Kilborn

President Bush is asking Congress for $80 billion dollars to re-build Iraq. And when you make out that check, remember there are two L's in Halliburton."
David Letterman

President Bush remained undeterred by the massive display of American opposition, even though much of it came from the hundreds of thousands of voters who supported [him] by voting for Nader.
Jon Stewart, on anti-war protests

As of yesterday, the Bush administration still hadn't found the source of the White House leak that outed a woman as a CIA operative. To recap, here are the things President Bush can't find: The source of the leak, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin laden, the link between Saddam and Osama bin laden, the guy who sent the anthrax through the mail, and his butt with two hands and a flashlight.
Tina Fey

Wednesday, September 01, 2004


My name is Miles and I was born and raised in Baytown, Texas. A friend of mine took a picture a few weeks ago that I think summed up our feelings about our roots quite eloquently (it's worth a thousand words, you know).