Brain imaging, culpability and the juvenile death penalty

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18 years. Central to Simmons's defense was new brain imaging evidence suggesting that the regions of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control are not as well developed in adolescents as in adults, thereby rendering adolescents less culpable for the crimes they commit. Although these images were not explicitly cited in the Court's decision, they were hailed by anti-death penalty advocates as the wave of the future. However, legal advocates and scientists should be cautious in using cutting-edge neuroscience for criminal justice purposes for several reasons. First and foremost, no definitive link between brain structure and deviant behavior has been established. Furthermore, very little is known about the developmental threshold that separates juvenile decision-making ability from adultlike decision-making ability.




Published In

Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 13, 2, 115-142.