Stanford v. Kentucky 1989

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Stanford v. Kentucky 1989

Petitioner: Kevin N. Stanford

Respondent: State of Kentucky

Petitioner's Claim: That executing him for committing murder when he was seventeen years old would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Frank W. Heft, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Frederic J. Cowan, Attorney General of Kentucky

Justices for the Court: Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: June 26, 1989

Decision: The Supreme Court affirmed Stanford's death sentence.

Significance: Under Stanford, the government may execute people who are sixteen years old or older when they commit murder.

On January 7, 1981, Kevin Stanford was seventeen years and four months old. That night, he and an accomplice robbed a gas station in Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Barbel Poore worked as an attendant. During the robbery Stanford and his accomplice repeatedly raped Poore. After taking 300 cartons of cigarettes, two gallons of fuel, and a small amount of cash, they drove Poore to a hidden area near the gas station. There Stanford killed Poore by shooting her once in the face and once in the back of the head.

After he was arrested, Stanford admitted to the murder to a corrections officer. Stanford said he killed Poore because she lived next door and would recognize him. The corrections officer said Stanford laughed when he told the story.

Kentucky state law allowed juveniles to be tried as adults for committing murder. A juvenile court conducted a hearing to determine if Stanford should be tried as an adult. The court learned that Stanford had a history of juvenile offenses and did not respond well to reform efforts. Because Stanford was charged with a disgusting murder, had many prior crimes, and did not seem capable of being reformed, the court ordered Stanford to be tried as an adult.

Stanford was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, however, prevents the government from using cruel and unusual punishment. Stanford used the Eighth Amendment to appeal his death sentence. He said it would be cruel and unusual to execute him for a crime he committed as a juvenile.

The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected Stanford's appeal. Relying on Stanford's criminal history and his failure to respond to reform, the court affirmed his death sentence. Stanford took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Death penalty for juveniles approved

Just one year before the Supreme Court ruled in Stanford's case, it decided that executing people for crimes they commit under sixteen years old violates the Eighth Amendment. With a 5–4 decision, however, the Supreme Court affirmed Stanford's death sentence. Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia said executing people for crimes they commit when sixteen or older is not cruel and unusual punishment.

Scalia said whether a punishment is cruel and unusual depends on the standards of decency in American society. To determine what those standards were, Scalia studied American laws and cases.

In 1988, thirty-seven states had laws that allowed the death penalty. Twenty-two of those states allowed the death penalty to be given to people who committed crimes when they were sixteen or seventeen years old. In other words, most of the states with the death penalty allowed it to be given to juvenile offenders. Moreover, between 1982 and 1988, forty-five juvenile offenders received death sentences in the United States.

For Scalia, this data meant American society approved of executing juvenile offenders. If such executions do not offend the standards of decency in the United States, they do not violate the Eighth Amendment.

Children too young to know better

Four justices dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote a dissenting opinion. Brennan believed it was cruel and unusual to take someone's life for committing a crime as a child. When he counted the states that outlawed the death penalty completely, Brennan found that a total of twenty-seven states said nobody under eighteen could get the death penalty. He also learned that between 1982 and 1988, less than three percent of death sentences in the United States were for juvenile crimes.

Brennan did not stop with analyzing the data. He pointed out that many important organizations opposed the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Most countries in the world had outlawed the death penalty completely or at least for juvenile offenders. The United States even had signed international treaties that prohibited juvenile death penalties.

Finally, Brennan said the reason for the death penalty is to punish offenders and discourage other criminals. Executing juvenile offenders does not serve these purposes. Because juveniles are not old enough to understand their crimes and control their conduct, reform is more appropriate than punishment. Because juveniles often believe they will never die, the death penalty does not discourage them from committing murder. In Brennan's opinion, the best thing to do with juvenile murderers is to try to reform them into lawful adults.


T reaties and conventions are agreements between different countries. These agreements form an international law. If a country ratifies a convention, it must obey the agreement or be in violation of international law.

Many international conventions prevent countries from using the death penalty for juvenile offenders—people who commit crimes and are under eighteen years old. The countries that ratify these agreements believe children under eighteen are too young to understand the meaning of their crimes. They also believe that children can change and grow into lawful adults if the government helps rather than executes them.

Although the United States has signed and ratified some of these agreements, it has reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders. Since the U.S. Supreme Court approved the death penalty in 1976, the United States has executed sixteen juvenile murderers, including three in January 2000. At the start of 2000, the only other countries that allowed the death penalty for juvenile offenders were Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Suggestions for further reading

Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.

Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Henson, Burt M., and Ross R. Olney. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty and the Constitution. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1996.

Herda, D.J. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.

O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.

Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Tushnet, Mark. The Death Penalty. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.

Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.

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Stanford v. Kentucky 1989

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