High School Shooters and Death Penalty: Juvenile Sentencing

Right now,  17-year-old Dimitrios Pagoutzis sits in the Galveston County Jail after confessing to being the active shooter responsible for last week's high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

In Florida, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz sets in jail in Broward County, Florida, facing 17 counts of murder for the high school shooting on Valentine's Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  See, "Terence Lenamon's Son At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting."

In the Cruz case, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.  In the Pagoutzis case, they don't have that option.  That's because the 17-year-old is not a legal adult, and juveniles are treated differently under the law.

1.  Roper v. Simmons - SCOTUS 2005

Fifteen years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to sentence anyone under 18 years of age to death.  It is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a minor.  Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 161 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2005).

From Roper (emphasis added):

It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime. See Brief for Human Rights Committee of the Bar of England and Wales et al. as Amici Curiae 10-11. The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.

Over time, from one generation to the next, the Constitution has come to earn the high respect and even, as Madison dared to hope, the veneration of the American people. See The Federalist No. 49, p. 314 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961). The document sets forth, and rests upon, innovative principles original to the American experience, such as federalism; a proven balance in political mechanisms through separation of powers; specific guarantees for the accused in criminal cases; and broad provisions to secure individual freedom and preserve human dignity. These doctrines and guarantees are central to the American experience and remain essential to our present-day self-definition and national identity. Not the least of the reasons we honor the Constitution, then, is because we know it to be our own. It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution or our pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom.

* * *

The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed

 

2.  Miller v. Alabama - SCOTUS 2012

Six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants under the age of 18 years cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possiblity for parole, either.  Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 567 U.S. 460, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012).

From Miller (emphasis added)

Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

Maximum Sentences for HIgh School Active Shooters

The rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States are those of the highest criminal court in the country.  They cannot be disregarded or overturned by any state court (or any lower federal court for that matter).

These two opinions are the law of the land.  Which means that while the Parkland, Florida shooter defendant faces the death penalty, the Santa Fe, Texas shooter defendant  cannot be sentenced to life without parole, much less capital punishment.

That's the law -- and all these outcries for the death penalty in the Texas case fly in the face of these constitutional precedents. 

For more information, see the Death Penalty Information Center's Roper v. Simmons Resource Page

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