[Note from Blog Editor Nita Farahany — I’m pleased to welcome and introduce guest contributor and author of this post, Stephanie Kostiuk, currently a 2L at Vanderbilt Law School]
Mental/Emotional Age and Developing Brain Theory
This blog has previously discussed the developing brain theory in the context of 8th Amendment challenges to punishment. As seen, here , here, and here, in novel applications of the developing brain theory, juvenile defendants have had little relative success in extending the holding of Roper v. Simmons or Graham v. Florida.
The case today presents a novel, and yet also unsuccessful, theory by a criminal defendant seeking to fit within the ambit of Roper. Here, the Petitioner was not a juvenile (by chronological age) at the time he committed the crimes, but nevertheless claims that his developmental age–based on his mental and emotional development–puts him in the same category of culpability of someone less than eighteen years. The court was quick to deny him relief on the basis of this theory, reminding the petitioner that Roper is limited to defendants whose chronological age is below eighteen.
Mental/Emotional Age, Developing Brain Theory, 8th Amendment Challenge to Sentence
Stephens v. McNeil, 2011 WL 939808 (M.D. Fla. 2011)
Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and multiple counts of armed robbery, and was sentenced to death. Petitioner appeals the state court’s holding denying his habeas petition, arguing that because he suffers from brain damage and mental impairment, his sentence of death is cruel and unusual punishment. Petitioner cites Roper v. Simmons, contending that since his mental and emotional age is less than eighteen years, he is in the category of persons for whom the Supreme Court found it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty. In denying him habeas relief, the state court emphasized that Roper only prohibits the execution of defendants whose chronological age is below eighteen. Since petitioner was twenty-three at the time he committed the crimes, the court found that Roper did not apply. Here, the district court also denies petitioner relief, concluding that the state court’s adjudication was not contrary to clearly established federal law and did not involve an unreasonable application of federal law. In doing so, the court noted that the expert testimony petitioner relied on did not necessarily establish that petitioner had brain damage, nor that he suffered from any major mental defect or deficiency. Rather, his most significant diagnosis was “borderline personality disorder.”