Imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed at age 17 or younger is rare


The current era of death sentences began in 1973

The Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972) struck down all existing death penalty statutes. Sentencing under post-Furman statutes began in 1973. The constitutionality of these current era statutes was not determined by the Supreme Court until the 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia. Executions under the current era statutes did not begin until 1977.

Supreme Court decisions prohibit the death penalty for persons younger than 16

The Supreme Court, in Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982), reversed the death sentence of a 16-year-old tried as an adult in criminal court. The Court held that a defendant's young age, as well as mental and emotional development, should be considered a mitigating factor of great weight in deciding whether to apply the death penalty. The Court noted that adolescents are less mature, responsible, and self-disciplined than adults and are less able to consider the long-range implications of their actions. The Court, however, did not address the question of whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the imposition of the death sentence on an offender because he was only 16 years old at the time he committed the offense.

In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the issue before the Court was whether imposing the death penalty on an offender who was 15 years old at the time of the murder, violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment prohibited application of the death penalty to a person who was younger than 16 at the time of the crime. In Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) the Court decided that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age 16 or 17.

Youth younger than 18 are a small proportion of those receiving the death penalty

From January 1, 1973, through June 30, 1996, 143 death sentences were handed down to 130 persons who were younger than 18 at the time of their crime. Youth under age 18 were approximately 2% of the individuals receiving death sentences since 1973.

Most "juvenile" death sentences are eventually reversed

As with most death sentences, many "juvenile" death sentences imposed are reversed. Since 1973, 60% of these "juvenile" death sentences have been reversed, 6% have resulted in executions, and 34% are still in force.

Some of the youth sentenced to death had their sentences reversed only to have them reinstated. Of the 130 persons sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 17 or younger, 10 had their sentences reversed and then reinstated at least once. One of these youth has had his death sentence reversed 4 times and reinstated 3 times.

48 death row inmates committed their crimes prior to age 18

Of the 48 inmates on death row at mid-year 1996 for crimes committed at age 17 or younger, 37 were 17 at the time of their offense and the remaining 11 were age 16. More than 40% of these inmates (21 of 48) were not "juveniles" at the time of their offense -- they were legally adults because they were older than their State's upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction. The majority of these were 17-year-olds from Texas where the upper age is 16 (17 of 21).

Table Table

The youngest of those on death row at mid-year 1996 for crimes committed prior to age 18 was 17 years old; the oldest was 38, and the average age was 25. As of mid-year 1996, an average of 6 years had passed since the inmate's initial death sentence.


The victims of these death row inmates tended to be adults

Most of the 64 victims of the 48 inmates on death row for crimes committed prior to age 18 were adult victims (42 of 64). Most of the victims were white (43 of 64).

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