I’ve written previously about the two categories of criminal law and juvenile neuroscience cases: claims about juveniles as a category, and claims about individual impairments in juveniles. As I explained previously, tracking the use of behavioral science evidence in juvenile cases is difficult because these cases often proceed under seal and do not appear in traditional criminal law databases. When the juvenile is tried as an adult, the cases are reported in the regular legal databases, as is the one today.
The opinion that I report today, which was modified on denial of rehearing on January 25, 2011, is an interesting one, and well worth reading. The juvenile challenges both the constitutionality of his transfer to adult court, and also the constitutionality of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles generally, and for him specifically since age was not explicitly considered as a mitigating factor. He fails on all claims before the Missouri Supreme Court, but the dissenting opinion is a must read. The dissent delves deeply into the specifics of the developing brain theory, citing several major scientific papers on the topic and discussing the implications of that research for juvenile responsibility and punishment.
Juvenile, Developing Brain Theory, Life without Parole
State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369 (MI 2011)
The defendant, who was a juvenile at the time of the crime, appealed the jury’s verdict finding him guilty of first degree murder for shooting and killing a police officer and the sentence imposed on him for that crime of life without parole. He challenges both the constitutional validity of the state juvenile-certification statute, as violating his right to a jury trial in a criminal prosecution under the Sixth Amendment, and the validity of mandatory sentencing of a minor to life without parole for committing first-degree murder as violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A divided 4-3 court affirmed the judgment. As to his first constitutional challenge, the 4-3 majority holds that the juvenile proceedings are not subject to sixth amendment right to jury trial protections, and regardless certifying him to be tried in an adult court is not a finding of fact relevant to sentencing, only the court in which he would be tried. His second challenge, whether mandatory sentencing of a minor to life without parole, was a contentious one for this court. The majority holds that Roper and Graham left open the possibility of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender when homicide is at issue. The dissent (3 judges dissenting) penned by Judge Wolff is one worth reading. On pages 383-390 of the opinion, he provides a detailed scientific discussion of the neurological differences in juveniles justifying their differential treatment categorically—finding that scientific understanding of the developing brains of juveniles suggests mandatory life imprisonment does not serve any legitimate goal of punishment. He also uses the scientific understanding of brain development to argue separately that age should be a mitigating factor in the appropriateness of life without the possibility of parole and that failing to consider age itself made the penalty constitutionally defective. “Brain imaging studies have shown that the frontal lobes of the brain, which are not developed until late adolescence, have an impact on response inhibition, regulation of emotion, planning and organization. Roper and Graham acknowledge that modern science now has established as fact the differences in juvenile brains and the effects of those differences on behavior and culpability.”