The Death Penalty at a Minor Age

To summarize the current situation in the United States with respect to capital punishment for minors suggests that most of the 38 capital punishment states puts minors in a position to be subject to the death penalty and bypassing adult criminal court. Many believe that minors shouldn’t be held to same standards as adults, even when they are committing crimes as an adult. When comparing the likes of capital punishment versus “acceptable goals of punishment” (Brookhiser, 2013), it is understood that it does not meet the level of vengeance deserved. It has been proposed that once the minor reaches the age of 18, he or she should be given the death penalty.

A product of the former Soviet Republic, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born on July 22, 1993. His family was forced to move around following World War II. When his family migrated to the US in 2002, Dzhokhar’s only brother, Tamerlan was left behind to live with an uncle; however, he later joined the family 2 years later. The family originally came to the states on a 90-day tourist visa, but later requested asylum; due to fear of persecution stemming from connections to Chechnya. Eventually they all settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Dzhokhar would later attend as a college student and become a US citizen. Dzhokhar and his three siblings were brought up as Muslims. He was an average kid, wrestled in high school and worked as a life guard at Harvard University. The family struggled living on welfare. His father made a living as a “shade tree” mechanic and his mother worked as a cosmetologist until she was terminated for refusing to service men.

After reaching out to a professor at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth he was able to obtain a scholarship and enroll there at the university. It often said by those who knew Dzhokhar that he was like a puppy dog, following his brother, Tamerlan (Dzhokhar, 2015).

Dzhokhar was very well liked by his fellow classmates and was to be as cool as the next person. According to Brookhiser (2013), no one could believe that he was involved in the bombings. Everyone thought this was totally out of character for Dzhokhar, he spoke perfect English, was not shy, and fit in well with the other students. Some may not know this, but Dzhokhar had an active Twitter account, and rarely spoke on religion.

When the bombings took place, Dzhokhar was living on campus in the dorm; although he was failing his classed and had accumulated a $20,000 bill with the university. It was also mentioned that he may have been selling marijuana for extra money.

Despite the Supreme Court halting the death penalty for juveniles it continues to be the topic of debate. The main intention for establishing the juvenile system is to make juveniles responsible for their criminal acts; at the same time providing treatment. The first juvenile court was established in the United States in Cook County, Illinois in 1899. The child who must be brought into court should, of course, be made to know that he is face to face with the power of the state, but he should at the same time, and more emphatically, be made to feel that he is the object of its care and solicitude (, 2018). The concept was monumental and within twenty years, most states had a juvenile system in place. The goal was to rehab the juveniles, not punish them. The state had authoritative power over the minors, including those with a disability. All cases were handled as civil cases. However; the juvenile court was given the power to remove minors from their homes and turn them over to juvenile to be placed in their rehab program.

In 1642 the first juvenile execution took place in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts when a sixteen-year-old was executed. Thomas Granger was accused of having sex with a mare, a cow, and some goats. This was the first juvenile death penalty case and America’s first certified prosecution of a child offender.

A Native American girl, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest child offender executed at the age of 12 years old. She was hung in 1786 in Connecticut for killing a 6-year-old white girl.

At the tender age of 14, African American, George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in 1944. George was the youngest child to be executed in the 20th century. He was accused of murdering two white girls in South Carolina. An all-white jury deliberated for only 10 minutes, and he was dead within 3 months. Unfortunately, in 2014 the South Carolina court system completely exonerated Stinney of any wrongdoing and ruled it a “miscarriage of justice”.

African American, James Echols, was the last teen to be punished for rape in 1964. Echols was accused of raping a white woman. At the age of 19, he was put to death for the crime.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychiatric Association have expounded on arguable details in dislike for death penalty for children under the age of eighteen.

The Tsarbaevs’ lives began in a town devastated with war, Chechen diaspora, which is what led to their family migrating to the United States. Tamerlan, being the oldest had vivid memories of escaping the Chechen war; which took place 1994-1996. For a year of his life, Tamerlan also lived in Dagestan, when Chechen warlord Basayev orchestrated over 30 suicide attacks and several hostage takings. Tamerlan was influenced by such terroristic acts and attempted to duplicate then when he arrived in the U.S. but was unsuccessful. Their family had a hard time trying to survive in the U.S. and eventually his parents divorced, and his father returned to Dagestan. Tamerlan pursued a boxing career, while Dzhokhar became a student at an American university. When Tamerlan’s boxing career came to an end, he became disappointed in himself. He began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol and his mother became concerned for his well-being.

So, she hired an Islamic tutor for him. According to Speckhard, the ingredients for the lethal cocktail of terrorism came together when Tamerlan’s individual vulnerabilities made him seek online contacts via the Internet and brought him in touch with offline mentors, militants and extremists who glorified Al-Qaeda’s global jihad (personal communication, 2013). This opened the doors to terroristic way of thinking for Tamerlan, to which he soon became a part of a jihadist group that had international connections. It was through these contacts that he was able to concoct the Boston marathon attack, including his own younger brother, Dzhokhar (Speckhard, 2013). The Tsarnaev brothers, were accused and convicted of orchestrating the Boston Marathon bombing. Dzhokhar reportedly told the FBI that they were upset about the United States disputes in Iraq and Afghanistan and the murdering of the Muslims. Dzhokhar’s brother, Tamerlan was killed by officers during a shootout on April 19, 2013. And then the walls came crashing down around Dzhokhar when he was formally charged on April 22, 2013 with using “a weapon of mass destruction”.

At this time, it was revealed that the prosecution would be seeking the death penalty for his involvement in killing 3 people and injuring more than 170. The brothers understood the United States at this point to be the antagonist and we needed to be defeated in the immediate term; meanwhile Russia keeps its states as their lifelong enemy. it was Dzhokhar’s belief that he and his brother were somehow being radicalized due to their resistance to America’s conflict with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The trial began, and Dzhokhar plead not guilty to all 30 federal charges, 17 of the 30 charges were eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors had portrayed Mr. Tsarnaev, who immigrated to Cambridge, Mass., from the Russian Caucasus with his family in 2002, as a coldblooded, unrepentant jihadist who sought to kill innocent Americans in retaliation for the deaths of innocent Muslims in American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (BUTIME, 2017).

“After all of the carnage and fear and terror that he has caused, the right decision is clear,” a federal prosecutor, Steven Mellin, said in his closing argument. “The only sentence that will do justice in this case is a sentence of death.” In a sweeping rejection of the defense case, the jury found that death was the appropriate punishment for six of 17 capital counts.

Massachusetts dissolved the death penalty in 1984; however, the prosecutors still rallied for the death penalty to be imposed on a federal level. In May 2013, they got their wish when the jury ruled in favor of the death penalty.

In July 2013, Rolling Stone published a cover featuring the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Along came controversy and both criticism and surprising support from the online version audience. The article discusses the research that was conducted on following the activity of comments during the first week of the cover exposure. The analysis focused on the interpretation of the results and what it meant for Rolling Stone’s image. The controversial cover of Dzhokhar drew great criticism from citizens; Rolling Stone was accused of giving the bomber “glamorizing the face of terror” (Jenkins & Tandoc, n.d.).

Throughout history there have been many death penalty cases, but the ones that really hit home involved juveniles. However; these cases did not make it the death penalty phase; due to the ages of the accused. Some of those cases are; Roper vs. Simmons (2005), in the U.S. Supreme Court 2005 decision in Roper vs. Simmons that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should also be applied to sentences of life without the possibility of parole for those who committed crimes as juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court 2005 decision in Roper vs. Simmons that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should also be applied to sentences of life without the possibility of parole for those who committed crimes as juveniles. Christopher Simmons was not the average guy. He had many run ins with the law and in 2003 it was no different. Simmons propositioned 2 friends to burglarize and murder a local lady. Midway in the plan one of his friends, backed out, So Simmons and his other friend continued with the plan. Simmons broke into the victim’s home, tied her up, covered her eyes and then drove her to a local park; where she was thrown from a bridge (Scott, 2005). Simmons later confessed to the crime and even went around bragging about the murder. The friend who backed out of the ploy, testified against Simmons at trial.

The criminal acts described in court were so hurtful to the jury that they immediately wanted Simmons sentenced to death. Simmons did not express any remorse at trial. The death sentence was imposed, and the court worked hard to uphold it. Simmons filed an appeal after the death penalty was overturned in the Atkins v. Virginia case and he won. Simmons was then sentenced to life without parole. His sentence overturn also paved the way for 72 other cases that involved criminals under the age of 18.

Thompson v. Oklahoma (1983): According to court documents, Thompson was 15 and was no stranger to run ins with the law. Thompson and his sister were being abused by his brother in law, Charles. Thompson grew tired of Charles beating on him and his sister and decided that he would take the law into his own hands. Thompson concocted a plan along with 3 of friends to kidnap and kill Charles. On January 23, 1983, the four young men kidnapped Charles, but while trying to escape, Charles ran to a neighbor’s home, who witnessed the 4 men beating and dragging Charles, so he contacted the police. Later, Charles’ body was found in a nearby river, he had been shot twice and cut. There was also a concrete block tied to his ankles. Thompson’s sister, eventually gave her brother up to the police, and he and his friends were all sentenced to death. However; his death sentence was later overturned. He was later resentenced and given life in prison.

Stanford v. Kentucky (1989): This case involved the accused Stanford and his accomplice. Stanford kidnapped, raped and sodomized a gas station clerk. He then took her to a secluded area close by, where he shot her in the face and in the back of the head. He and his accomplice committed such a heinous crime for 300 boxes of cigarettes, two gallons of gas, and a little cash (Herbert, 2004). The courts attempted to get Stanford tried as an adult; due to the seriousness of the crimes and his long record of arrests. It was determined that it was unconstitutional for a juvenile under the age of 16 at the time of their offense to be executed. Stanford was 17 years old at the time of the murder and therefore his defense argued the death sentence would be cruel and unusual punishment.

In current case law, the Supreme Court overruled most death penalties. The 1972 Furman vs Georgia case decision struck down most state and federal death penalty laws. This case consisted of Furman attempting to commit a home robbery. He is discovered by a family member and attempts to flee. While doing so, he trips and falls. And his gun goes off. Consequently, when the gun went off it struck and killed a family member. Furman is tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

A most recent decision was when, a diagnosed multiple personality disorder 16-years-old was executed in 1999 in the United States in the Sellers vs. State case. Sellers was convicted of three counts of murder in the first degree after being convicted by a jury. He received the death penalty on all three counts; in support of the convictions and sentences they were later supported by direct appeal. Sellers filed an application for post-conviction relief and it was rejected on February 7, 1995. His execution was then scheduled for February 4, 1999. However; Sellers did not give up, on January 29, 1999, Sellers filed this Emergency Motion to Recall the Mandate, Alternative Emergency Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, and Emergency Request for a Stay of Execution (Motion for Relief).

The court ruled for a second time; We have rejected Sellers’s claim that, under the statutes formerly governing capital post-conviction cases, he would have been entitled to relief on his claim of newly discovered evidence. We also reject his claim that the clemency proceedings in his case violated his rights to due process. Sellers’s petition to withdraw the mandate previously issued in this case is DENIED. Sellers’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED. Finding no merit to his claims, Sellers’s request for a stay of execution is DENIED (FindLaw, n.d.).

The sternest penalty that the government can pass down in a case is death. However; there are limitations on when it can be used. The majority of the United States disapproves of ruling in favor of sentencing children to death in prison. The burden of seeking life imprisonment has become nearly impossible for the state; as well as convincing the courts of rehabilitation for the child perpetrator. But should minors be sentenced to death? A lot of people believe if a minor commits the crime, then he or she should do the time. When the child did not think the crime through or was influenced, should they all be sentenced the same? The movement continues and perhaps we will never come to a complete agreement.

Children do not make wise decisions, and they tend to find role models in the strangest places. There are options and programs set forth to prevent children from making these bad decisions; which can land them on death row or dead. Peer pressure and being in the wrong place at the wrong time can also contribute to a lifetime behind bars. It is our responsibility as adults to make sure that children know that they have help available to them, and that there are good positive role models out there. They need to know that they do not have to go down the wrong path.

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The Death Penalty at a Minor Age. (2021, Jun 13). Retrieved June 30, 2022 , from

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