Can Juveniles Receive the Death Penalty?

jail cell for juvenile death penalty case

Wave 3 news has reported on an important development regarding a Louisville murder case.  The decision has been made in that case by the Juvenile Court that while the crimes were committed while the defendant was a minor, they are serious enough to transfer to the Jefferson Circuit Court and are going to be tried as an adult.  Then the question becomes: can juveniles receive the death penalty? The suspect was seventeen (17) at the time he allegedly committed a murder on East Indian Trail.  He turned eighteen (18) shortly after the crime.

The legal website NOLO provides the following:

Some juvenile cases get transferred to adult criminal court through a process called a “waiver”—when a judge waives the protections that juvenile court provides. In Kentucky, this is called a “transfer hearing” and it is usually reserved for the more serious felony offenses, including but not limited to wanton endangerment, assault, robbery and murder.  Usually, but not always, juvenile cases that are subject to waiver or transfer involve more serious crimes or minors who have been in trouble before, although being in trouble before is not a pre-requisite for being transferred to Circuit Court.  It can also happen on a juvenile’s first offense if it is serious enough.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a minor who is convicted of murder is protected from the death penalty.  The Court’s decision then was based on the interpretation that it would be cruel and unusual punishment.  Another later interesting ruling dealing with juvenile murder charges deals with prison time.  There’s a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision preventing minors to being sentenced to life without parole, if convicted of murder.

There are several issues with trying a juvenile as an adult:

  • This gives the individual the right to a trial by jury.
  • Juries might decide to be more lenient on a minor.
  • If found guilty, the court can hand down a harsher sentence.
  • The minor will be forced to serve time with convicted adults.
  • Obviously, because cases are different, there could be other benefits and risks.

In deciding which venue will be used District Court – Juvenile or Circuit Court – Adult) to prosecute the case, the State (the prosecutor) understands that there will be ramifications, either way.  Law-and-order types will push for harsher sentencing.  Others in the Louisville community will ask for leniency in an effort to rehabilitate the individual.  As a criminal defense attorney, my job is to represent my client as aggressively and zealously as possible.  Regardless of which court system is ultimately selected, if this were my case, I’d be ready.

So, can juveniles receive the death penalty?  The answer is: it depends on many factors.  The reality of this situation is that the individual described in the Wave 3 television report is now eighteen (18) and will be tried as an adult.  Depending on the prosecutor’s decision as to how to proceed, the stakes literally could be life or death for this young man.

Link to original new report: