STANFORD V. KENTUCKY, 492 U. S. 361 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989)

Stanford v. Kentucky

No. 87-5765

Argued March 27, 1989

Decided June 26, 1989*

492 U.S. 361


Petitioner in No. 87-5765 was approximately 17 years and 4 months old at the time he committed murder in Kentucky. A juvenile court, after conducting hearings, transferred him for trial as an adult under a state statute permitting such action as to offenders who are either charged with a Class A felony or capital crime or who are over the age of 16 and charged with a felony. Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death. The State Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence, rejecting petitioner's contention that he had a constitutional right to treatment in the juvenile justice system, and declaring that his age and the possibility that he might be rehabilitated were mitigating factors properly left to the jury. Petitioner in No. 87-6026, who was approximately 16 years and 6 months old when he committed murder in Missouri, was certified for trial as an adult under a state statute permitting such action against individuals between 14 and 17 years old who have committed felonies. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. The State Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting his contention that the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

Held: The judgments are affirmed.

No. 87-5765, 734 S.W.2d 781, affirmed; No. 87-6026, 736 S.W.2d 409, affirmed.

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and IV-A, concluding that the imposition of capital punishment on an individual for a crime committed at 16 or 17 years of age does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 492 U. S. 365-374.

(a) Whether a particular punishment violates the Eighth Amendment depends on whether it constitutes one of "those modes or acts of punishment . . . considered cruel and unusual at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted," Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 477 U. S. 405, or is contrary to the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 356 U. S. 101. Petitioners have not alleged that their sentences would have been considered cruel and unusual in the 18th century, and could not support such a contention, since, at that

Page 492 U. S. 362

time, the common law set the rebuttable presumption of incapacity to commit felonies (which were punishable by death) at the age of 14. In accordance with this common law tradition, at least 281 offenders under 18, and 126 under 17, have been executed in this country. Pp. 492 U. S. 368-370.

(b) In determining whether a punishment violates evolving standards of decency, this Court looks not to its own subjective conceptions, but, rather, to the conceptions of modern American society as reflected by objective evidence. E.g., Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 433 U. S. 592. The primary and most reliable evidence of national consensus -- the pattern of federal and state laws -- fails to meet petitioner's heavy burden of proving a settled consensus against the execution of 16- and 17-year-old offenders. Of the 37 States that permit capital punishment, 15 decline to impose it on 16-year-olds and 12 on 17-year-olds. This does not establish the degree of national agreement this Court has previously thought sufficient to label a punishment cruel and unusual. See Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137, 481 U. S. 154. Pp. 492 U. S. 370-373.

(c) Nor is there support for petitioners' argument that a demonstrable reluctance of juries to impose, and prosecutors to seek, capital sentences for 16- and 17-year-olds establishes a societal consensus that such sentences are inappropriate. Statistics showing that a far smaller number of offenders under 18 than over 18 have been sentenced to death reflect in part the fact that a far smaller percentage of capital crimes is committed by persons in the younger age group. Beyond that, it is likely that the very considerations that induce petitioners to believe death should never be imposed on such young offenders cause prosecutors and juries to believe it should rarely be imposed, so that the statistics are no proof of a categorical aversion. Pp. 492 U. S. 373-374.


1. There is no relevance to the state laws cited by petitioners which set 18 or more as the legal age for engaging in various activities, ranging from driving to drinking alcoholic beverages to voting. Those laws operate in gross, and do not conduct individualized maturity tests for each driver, drinker, or voter; an age appropriate in the vast majority of cases must therefore be selected. In the realm of capital punishment, however, individualized consideration is a constitutional requirement. Twenty-nine States, including Kentucky and Missouri, have codified this requirement in laws specifically designating age as a mitigating factor that capital sentencers must be permitted to consider. Moreover, the determinations required by transfer statutes such as Kentucky's and Missouri's to certify a juvenile for trial as an adult ensure individualized consideration of the maturity and moral responsibility of 16- and 17-year-olds before they are even held to stand trial as adults. It is those particularized laws, rather than the generalized driving, drinking, and voting

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laws, that display society's views on the age at which no youthful offender should be held responsible. Pp. 492 U. S. 374-377.

2. The indicia of national consensus offered by petitioner other than state and federal statutes and the behavior of prosecutors and juries cannot establish constitutional standards. Public opinion polls, the views of interest groups, and the positions of professional associations are too uncertain a foundation for constitutional law. Also insufficient is socioscientific or ethicoscientific evidence tending to show that capital punishment fails to deter 16- and 17-year-olds because they have a less highly developed fear of death, and fails to exact just retribution because juveniles, being less mature and responsible, are less morally blameworthy. The audience for such arguments is not this Court, but the citizenry. Although several of the Court's cases have engaged in so-called "proportionality" analysis -- which examines whether there is a disproportion between the punishment imposed and the defendant's blameworthiness, and whether a punishment makes any measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment -- those decisions have never invalidated a punishment on that basis alone, but have done so only when there was also objective evidence of state laws or jury determinations establishing a societal consensus against the penalty. Pp. 492 U. S. 377-380.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR, although agreeing that no national consensus presently forbids the imposition of capital punishment on 16- or 17-year-old murderers, concluded that this Court has a constitutional obligation to conduct proportionality analysis, see, e.g., Penry v. Lynaugh, ante at 492 U. S. 335-340, and should consider age-based statutory classifications that are relevant to that analysis. Pp. 492 U. S. 380-382.

SCALIA, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and IV-A, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts IV-B and V, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 492 U. S. 380. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 492 U. S. 382.

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