Thompson v. Oklahoma

Following is the case brief for Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)

Case Summary of Thompson v. Oklahoma:

  • Petitioner Thompson was age 15 when he participated in a murder.
  • He was tried as an adult and eventually sentenced to death.
  • The State appeals court affirmed the conviction and sentence.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, vacated the sentence and remanded the case.  A plurality of the Court held that executing someone who was under 16 years old at the time of the crime violates the Eighth Amendment.

Thompson v. Oklahoma Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

15-year old Thompson actively participated in the brutal murder of his brother-in-law, who was abusive to Thompson’s sister.  Under Oklahoma law, Thompson was considered a “child,” and therefore the prosecutor had to obtain permission from the trial court to have Thompson tried as an adult.  He obtained that permission, and Thompson was tried as an adult.

Procedural History:

  • After trial, Thompson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
  • The Court of Criminal Appeals in Oklahoma affirmed both the conviction and sentence.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is the sentence of death cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment for someone who was 15-years-old at the time of the crime?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is vacated and the case is remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The death penalty for a person who committed a crime when he was 15 years old is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment based on the evolving standards of decency in the United States.

Reasoning:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment is incorporated to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.  The standard of “cruel and unusual punishment” is guided by the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86.  Those evolving standards arise from a review of relevant State statutes and jury behavior.

In that vein, all of the States that have considered a minimum age for capital punishment agree that 16-years-old is the minimum.  Also, statistics show that no person under the age of 16 at the time of the crime has been sentenced to death since 1948.  Finally, a juvenile’s lack of maturity indicates that he or she has reduced culpability for crimes in general compared to adults.  Therefore, a plurality of the Court found that it is cruel and unusual to sentence a person to death who was younger than 16 at the time of the crime.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (O’Connor):

While a national consensus likely does exist against putting someone to death who committed his crime when he was under 16 years of age, it should not be a rule of constitutional law without more evidence to support it.

Dissenting Opinion (Scalia):

There is no national consensus regarding a minimum age for the death penalty if we allow for an inquiry into the individual circumstances of each case.  Because there are some 15-year-olds who do have the requisite maturity to understand the consequences of his or her actions, the Court’s constitutional rule announced here should not stand.  Further, the original understanding of the phrase “cruel and unusual” when the Constitution was drafted allowed the death penalty for 15-year-olds.

Significance:

Thompson v. Oklahoma is one link in a chain of death penalty cases that have restricted the death penalty more and more under the Eighth Amendment.  Since this case, putting to death the mentally handicapped has been disallowed under the Eighth Amendment (Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002); and putting to death those under 18 at the time of the crime (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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