Thirty-five years ago, the American Bar Association was one of the first organizations to call for abolition of the death penalty for those under the age of 18. This week, stating that “it is now time to revise its dated position,” the ABA is calling on death penalty states to rule out sentencing or executing any individuals who were 21 years or younger when they committed the crime.
The ABA’s reasoning is that “there is a growing medical consensus that key areas of the brain relevant to decision-making and judgment continue to develop into the early 20s. With this has come a corresponding public understanding that our criminal justice system should also evolve in how it treats late adolescents (individuals age 18 to 21 years old), ranging from their access to juvenile court alternatives to eligibility for the death penalty.”
Among the many criminal justice activists who welcomed the declaration was Billie Mizell, a DPF board member, and executive director of the Marin County-based Insight Prison Project, an organization that works with thousands of men, women, and youth incarcerated in prisons, county jails, and juvenile reentry facilities in California.
“Our brains are not fully mature in our teens — and yet our prisons, and death row, are full of people who committed their crimes as teenagers,” says Mizell.
Previously a death penalty investigator, Mizell worked on the case of Tiequon Cox, who was 18 when he was arrested for the murder of four people in Los Angeles in 1984. He’s now a 52-year-old “kind, thoughtful, well-read, curious man,” says Mizell. But Cox is one of the 18 men who has exhausted his appeals, and if California does resume executions in the wake of the passage of Proposition 66, he will be at risk.
Mizell contrasts Cox’s plight with that of Phil Melendez, threatened with a death sentence at the age of 19, but ultimately given a life sentence. Thanks to “youthful offender” legislation, Melendez was released in September after 20 years. He now works at Insight Prison Project, where “I see him change lives every day, using his story to make the world better and safer,” says Mizell. “He is a great husband, father, and son—his family feels so fortunate to have him home, giving back in all the ways he does.”
But the “science that sent Phil home has been determined not to apply to Tiequon, or to the other 146 prisoners who were between the ages of 18 and 21 when they were sent to California’s death row,” Mizell says. That science, which led to the passage of youthful offender legislation, concluded that significant neurological development continues until the age of 25. “If the same science was applied equitably to everyone in our criminal justice system, then a total of 300 people on death row in California would be eligible to apply for relief.” Still, Mizell believes the ABA’s resolution is “a great start.” She has photos of Cox and Melendez on her desk, and “the man in one of those photos has been told that for him, science is irrelevant. I appreciate that the ABA says otherwise,” she says.
And death penalty attorney Robert M. Sanger, who has four capital cases involving defendants who were under 21 at the time of the alleged crime, says he appreciates that, “In addition to brain development they recognize collateral consequences such as the fact that false confessions and wrongful convictions occur with more frequency among young people.”
However, the ABA expressly stated that it wasn’t taking a position supporting or opposing the death penalty, but simply urging the exemption of those 21 and younger at the time of the crime.
Which means DPF President Mike Farrell is not as enthusiastic. “I think the ABA position indicates a step in the right direction, but despite the advocacy of some dedicated members, the ABA itself fails to demonstrate the courage and integrity demanded by both the advanced understanding of brain development and the abysmal failure of the entire death system as evidenced every day in America,” he said in response to the announcement.