Monday, December 13, 2004

Child Offenders on Death Row

Recent Australian studies of alcohol and cannabis use show that girls are increasingly inclined to behave boldly. But boys out number the girls, two to one; and three to one in the juvenile justice system, mortality figures, speeding infringements and car crash statistics.

Boys are more likely to hit the headlines with anti-social acts, nightclub stabbings, physical abuse of parents, cruelty to animals, train-surfing, graffiti sessions and craziness that leads them astray.

Boys are more likely to present with neurological disorders associated with extreme impulsiveness and distractibility.

Counsellors, police, parents and school principals usually blame testosterone and an orgy of modern culprits - violent video games, explicit films and media images, spiritual anorexia, dislocated families, alcoholic beverages that taste like cordial and cost less than soft drink, mobile phones, rap music, premature puberty and a society that mollycoddles children who once roamed like free-range chooks.

But now science has harnessed technology to reveal evidence about brain development and gender differences that is leading to worldwide reviews of adolescent culpability and age-appropriate limits for drinking, driving and criminal charges.

The application of endocrinology, psychology, psychiatry, genetics and neuroscience with its magnetic resonance imaging tools has confirmed what parents of teenagers know instinctively. Maturity does not kick in at a precise chronologica point, and girls tend to be streets ahead of boys in their ability to conduct cost-benefit analysis of behaviour.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon address the constitutionality of the death penalty for 17-year-old offenders based on scientific research that shows the human brain, particularly for males, continues to evolve in adolescence, reaching biological maturity at 21 or 22. The last regions to develop govern the mental ability to control impulses, planning, consideration of consequences, abstract reasoning and most probably moral judgement.

"To a certain degree this latest research simply confirms what we have always known or suspected about the brain development of 17-year-olds," the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry says in a petition to the court. "While they often appear to be 'fully grown' physically and may seem to be functioning as adults, their judgement and impulse control are simply not those of adults.

Yes, they may know 'right from wrong' under an infancy defence or an insanity test but they nonetheless are lacking in fully adult-level functioning of their brains. They may make horrible decisions, and they act on impulse without thinking clearly through the consequences."

A court affidavit by neuro-psychologist Dr Ruben Gur summarises the brain anatomy data from groundbreaking studies conducted at Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins medical schools and the National Institute of Health.

Scientists are intrigued by the brain development taking place in adolescence. The grey matter, or thinking part of the brain, peaks at around 11 years in girls and age 12 in boys, followed by a pruning stage which thins and eliminates excess connections. This process is accompanied by myelination, where the brain's white matter or "insulation" focuses and refines neural networks regulating behaviour.

Latest research suggests that myelination is the main index of maturation and that this insulation continues into the 20th year of life. Neurological teams are now investigating whether nature or nurture - genes, parenting, nutrients or other influences-determine this brain development.

Dr Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health has been scanning sets of twins. He has found that the corpus callosum - the thick cable of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain - is remarkably similar in twins but the cerebellum in the back of the brain which co-ordinates cognitive processes is not genetically controlled and changes most during the teen years.

The male brain is 10 per cent larger than the female brain, although this does not imply any advantage. IQs are similar. But there are differences between boys' and girls' brains in the size of certain structures and their developmental path.

Almost every neurological disorder is more common in boys- autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, attention deficit and hyperactivity, Tourette's syndrome. Only anorexia nervosa afflicts mostly girls.

Studies tracking brain development from adolescence to adulthood have shown that males rely more heavily than females on the instinctual part of the brain. The frontal lobe, which develops more slowly in males than in females, undergoes dramatic change during teenage years and is the last part of the brain to develop. A small area of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, is like the body's chief executive. It controls our advanced level of consciousness responsible for prioritising thoughts, abstract thinking, language comprehension and expression, impulse control, planning and inhibition. As the frontal lobe is developing, there lease of adolescent hormones causes the amygdala, which governs emotional response, to fire up or expand.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of the Harvard Medical School has studied how teenagers and adults respond differently to the same images. Shown photos of faces contorted in fear, adults named the right emotion but teenagers seldom did, mistaking anxiety for anger.

When Yurgelun-Todd's team performed this test using magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brain's functions, they found that adults used the advanced prefrontal cortex and the amygdala to evaluate the image, while teenagers relied entirely on the amygdala. Older teenagers showed a progressive shift toward the front of the brain. "Just because teens are physically mature, they may not appreciate the consequences or weigh information the same way as adults do," Yurgelun-Todd says. "Good judgement is learned but you can't learn it if you don't have the necessary hardware."

This should explain, not excuse, anti-social behaviour and help in the design of programs and deterrence that minimise the potential for teenagers to harm themselves and others.

Historically, the ripening from adolescence to adulthood has been wrongfully guided by arbitrary age limits governing the right to vote, go to jail, enter the military, get married, have sex and even get the death sentence for certain crimes.

The Australian Coalition Against Death Penalty has incessantly discussed the issue of child offenders on death row with friendly officials at the American Embassy in Canberra.

ACADP has a webpage dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment for child offenders, which includes a short profile of a child offender on Texas death row. Leo's case has been used to educate Australian students of the dangers associated with youth, substance abuse and crime.

Leo Little was 17 years old when he committed his crime. Now aged 24, Leo told ACADP that he still has difficulties trying to understand and explain how he could have committed such a crime. Leo has no answers to his own questions.

Too young to vote, old enough to be executed

''People change. You know, to take somebody's life at 17 - you can't hold a 17-year-old by the same standards as you do me or you... I've made poor decisions, everybody does. But experience - you know, life - life is a teacher, and I know even today Napoleon is much better now than he was then.'' Rena Beazley, mother of Napoleon Beazley, May 2001(1)

By ACADP posted 13 December 04

The ACADP webpage on child offenders on death row can be found at the following Internet website: Source (ACADP and The Australian).
© ACADP Incorporated ¨
The Premier Australian Internet
Resource on Capital Punishment


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DNA Evidence of Bipartisanship
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US: Execution Dear Friends, this is so sad especially for our dear friend, San Nguyen. San who lives in Oklahoma worked very hard with the rest of the Vietnamese community to stop Mr. Le's execution. You may remember San from being at CURE's First International Conference in New York City in 2001. San also plans to be at the 8th National Convention this June in Washington. Charlie

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TEXAS EXECUTES 300th PRISONER Keith Clay was executed tonight, becoming the 300th prisoner in Texas to die by lethal injection since the rogue state resumed the death penalty 20 years ago.

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Amnesty urges Bush to shut death row Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged US President George W. Bush to take a "moral stand" and abolish the death penalty after the Illinois Governor dramatically emptied that state's death row.

USA - A NATION IN TURMOIL: As the year 2002 draws to a close, little if anything, has changed in the United States in regards to state-sanctioned killing. Various campaigns, calls for clemency, petitions, and international condemnation, have failed to humanize U.S. politicians.

Here come de Judge - Time to Leave [266]
There have always been examples of rulings and interpretations that have supported the saying "The law is an ass". This is increasingly the case, because even the best intentioned judges are now facing an avalanche of new technologies and social change. But, it is no good making excuses for the judiciary and continuing to accept their strange interpretations. We must recognise that not only judges but the whole legal system will struggle more and more. In the end the whole system will become a farce. This is the way empires end.