Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815; 108 S. Ct. 2687; 101 L. Ed. 2d 702 (1988)

Facts—William Wayne Thompson was tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. At the time of the offense he was fifteen years old. Under Oklahoma law a boy of that age is a “child.” Under the law the “child” can be tried as an adult if the prosecution shows the prosecutive merit of the case and there are no reasonable prospects for rehabilitation within the juvenile system. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Question—Is it cruel and unusual punishment to execute a convicted murderer who was fifteen years old at the time of the crime?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (5–3). Contemporary standards of decency “confirm our judgment that such a young person is not capable of acting with the degree of culpability that can justify the ultimate penalty.” Human experience and U.S. history recognize “that there are differences which must be accommodated in determining the rights and duties of children as compared with those of adults.” Other than the special certification procedure (used in this instance by the prosecution) “apparently there are no Oklahoma statutes either civil or criminal that treat a person under 16 years of age as anything but a ‘child’ . . . there is . . . complete or near unanimity among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in treating a person under 16 as a minor for several important purposes.” The conclusion that it would “offend civilized standards of decency to execute a person who was less than 16 years old at the time of his or her offense” is consistent with the views expressed by respected professional organizations. A societal factor, moreover, involves American sensibility to jury behavior. The haphazard handing out of death sentences by capital juries was a prime factor in Furman v. Georgia (1972). Punishment should be related to culpability and “adolescents as a class are less mature and responsible than adults . . . [they] lack the experience, perspective, and judgment expected of adults. We conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the execution of a person who was under 16 years of age at the time of his or her offense.”

J. O’Connor’s concurrence questioned the evidence for a national consensus against using capital punishment for individuals who committed their crimes when under the age of 16, but was unwilling to apply the penalty in such cases unless the law specifically gave consideration to such a minimum age.

J. Scalia, in dissent, would permit the imposition of such a penalty in such circumstances as long as the Court used individualized sentencing.

J. Kennedy did not participate in this decision.

Note—The Supreme Court often draws fine lines. In Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), the Court decided that juries could impose the death penalty on individuals who were sixteen years or older at the time that they committed their crimes, but it reversed course in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), and drew the line at eighteen.

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