The research of psychology professor Laurence Steinberg was cited five times and helped to determine the verdict in a recent Supreme Court case.
On March 1, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth and 14th amendments to the Constitution forbid the death penalty from being issued to minors. The ruling stemmed from a Missouri courtroom where Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death for a murder he planned and carried out in 1993, when he was 17 years old.
Simmons was charged with burglary, stealing and first-degree murder. He planned the murder with two accomplices, telling the individuals that they would not be punished because they were minors.
Simmons and the other accomplices broke into Shirley Crook’s home at 2 a.m. one day in early September. They drove her to the Meramec River, where they wrapped Crook’s entire face with duct tape, bound her hands and feet with electrical wire, and threw her from a bridge to drown in the water below.
Police traced Simmons through comments and bragging statements he made to classmates about the murder. Simmons waived his right to a lawyer and confessed to the charges within two hours.
Simmons was sentenced to death, and early appeals on his behalf to the court were rejected. However, Simmons’ lawyers referenced Atkins v. Virginia, which ruled that the execution of a mentally retarded person is prohibited. They also argued that the same reasoning should be applicable to minors.
This objection to Simmons’ sentencing was evaluated by the Supreme Court. Steinberg’s research played a substantial role in the deliberation. As director of the MacArthur Juvenile Adjudicative Competence Study, Steinberg’s research demonstrates that, because of intellectual and emotional immaturity, adolescents may not be considered competent to stand trial.
“Adolescents are inherently different from adults in ways that ought to be taken into account,” Steinberg said.
In regards to the legal system, some of these differences include knowledge, understanding and reasoning. Steinberg’s study showed that younger individuals are less capable of recognizing the risks and long-term consequences of their behavior. For example, a 14-year-old is twice as likely as an adult to waive their right to remain silent when talking to officials.
As a result of this information, Simmons’ sentencing was reduced to life imprisonment without eligibility for probation or release except by act of the government.
Steinberg, a Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at the University, said that he is “more than happy with the outcome of the case but was part of a team that filed a brief to the court in order to achieve this result.”
Although Steinberg said he feels life without parole is probably also too extreme for a crime committed by an adolescent, he was more interested in the final ruling rather than the actual case and was pleased to see things heading in what he considered the right direction.
For more information on Steinberg’s research, log on to www.mac-adoldev-juvjustic.org/page25.html.
Megan Davies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.