The case Thompson v. Oklahoma took place in 1988. William Thompson (15 year-old boy) killed his brother-in-law, who had been abusing his sister. The murder was not committed in state of temporary insanity, so the court considered it as first-degree murder and sentenced William Thompson to death. As far as the 8th and 14th Amendments ban death sentence for a person, who is under 16 years old at the moment of committing crime, the Court considered execution of 15-year old boy as cruel and unusual.
The case was reversed and remanded and the Supreme Court granted William Thompson certiorari.
The crime was committed by four persons. William Thompson took part in murder. The killed had a lot of bruises, his leg was broken; his chest, abdomen and throat had been cut, and he had been shot two times. Then after they fettered him to a concrete block and threw him to the river. All four people, who took part in crime, were sentenced to death.
As far as Thompson was under 16 at the moment of committing crime, he couldn’t be executed because of prohibition. The justices thoroughly examined circumstances of crime, and concluded that the child was quite aware of consequences at the moment of committing crime and as far as he had mental capacity to realize all the consequences of crime. They stated that there was no chance to rehabilitate William Thompson with help of juvenile system and that he should be treated as adult.
At the first stage of trial, the prosecutor presented three photographs, showing the dead body after it was taken out from the river. The photos were introduced to convince guilt of William Thompson. Later the prosecutor asked to find two circumstances, which prove that crime was cruel and heinous. The Court complied with request.
In such a way the Court of Criminal Appeals gave its approval to the fact of death sentence. They stated that as far as a person, who was under 16 years old at the moment of committing crime, is certified as an adult for trial procedures, he can be also punished as adult.
At the same time, as far as the Supreme Court granted William Thompson certiorari, they had to consider, whether a death sentence was “cruel and unusual punishment” for a minor and violates his constitutional rights.
First of all, there should be a certain degree of culpability, which allows accepting death sentence for a minor. The problem was that authors of the 8th Amendment introduced prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments”, although they didn’t give any specifications for that. Judges, who were responsible for trial, should examine, whether the punishment could be considered as violating the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958) (plurality opinion) (Warren, C. J.).
Justice Powell compared rights of adults and children, and came to conclusion, that there are certain differences between them. For example, children are not eligible to vote, to purchase alcohol and cigarettes, to mention a few. Justice Powell stated that according to laws of Oklahoma, a person under 16 years old can be treated as a child only. Taking into considerations all prohibitions and limitations in rights for minors (as well as driving with parental consent, marrying with parental consent only, etc), the child cannot be treated as adult during the trial and to be fully responsible for his actions before attaining his maturity.
Further the Supreme Court examined minimum age for death penalty. For example, there are 14 States in America, which don’t recognize death penalty at all; from the other side, there are 19 States, which authorize to impose death penalty, but don’t state minimum age of a person (this is an obstacle to find consensus). Although, the judges accepted supposition, that in those States, where death penalty is accepted, minimum age of criminal should be at least 16 years.
The American Law Institute and the American Bar Association also are against the death sentence for minors. Judges also presented the fact, that there are plenty of countries, where death penalty is prohibited at all (such countries as Germany, United Kingdom, Russia, Spain, New Zealand, the Netherlands, etc)
Further, the Supreme Court examined quantity of people, sentenced to death during the XX century, and came to conclusion that majority of cases were held in the first half of century. The average age of young people, committed crimes and sentenced to death, was approximately 18-20 years old. There were only five minors (under 16 years old), sentenced to death for participation in cruel murders. The Court also considered age as a mitigating circumstance, stating that young people at the age under 16 are not able to control their behavior to that extent, the adults can. Young people are more impulsive and cannot think in long-rank terms, as the adults can, so they shouldn’t be treated as adults during trials.
So, taking into consideration all afore said, the Court Criminal Judgment’s decision was vacated and the case Thompson v. Oklahoma was remanded, getting instructions to prohibit death sentence for a youth under 16 years old.