The Death Penalty and Youth

By Rakoff, Vivian | Clinical Psychiatry News, May 2005 | Go to article overview

The Death Penalty and Youth


Rakoff, Vivian, Clinical Psychiatry News


The recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that will abolish the execution of offenders who are under the age of 18 years is a splendid one. In fact, I am reluctant to question it.

But why stop there?

I have found this topic engaging and daunting since I was a medical student in England in the 1950s: My awareness was sparked by a famous murder case involving two young men, Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig.

Mr. Bentley, who was 19 years old, was illiterate and suffered from epilepsy. Mr. Craig was 16 years old and healthy.

During a botched robbery attempt, policemen cornered the two. A policeman actually held Mr. Bentley, but had not yet put him under formal arrest. At that moment, a second policeman advanced on Mr. Craig, who was carrying a gun. Mr. Bentley shouted, "Let him have it!"

There is still doubt about whether Mr. Bentley was encouraging Mr. Craig to let the policeman have the gun or whether he meant to encourage Mr. Craig to shoot the policeman.

The outcome was terrible. Mr. Craig, who at 16 was deemed too young to be sentenced to death, served 10 years in prison. Mr. Bentley was judged an accessory to murder--and was hanged.

The law was properly followed in the case, but its manifest unfairness and cruelty raised a public outcry and was important in altering British law on the death penalty.

That case tragically dramatized the arbitrariness of the age distinction. Are 19-year-olds that much more mature than 18-year-olds?

I am not a lawyer. I am a physician and a psychiatrist. And, while as a citizen I have concerns about justice and law in a general sense, as a physician I am deeply concerned with the primary medical virtue of charity, or, if you prefer, mercy.

My ideal self argues for mercy over the competing social virtue of justice. But of course, arguments of mercy will not stand up in court. If the law decides that the punishment for murder is execution, then one must have some counterarguments to the death penalty that are more definitive than the well-intentioned science cited in the psychiatric brief presented to the Supreme Court.

An essential platform of that brief--the immaturity of the 18-year-old brain, which is still in the process of development--while persuasive, has many problems.

I must reluctantly agree with Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion, in which he wrote that the science is not good enough and is evolving. Will an acceptance of an immature brain in 18-year-olds now be used to argue against young people's rights to seek out an abortion, drive an automobile, vote, and so on? …

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