The execution of the Washington area sniper, John Allen Muhammad, on Nov. 10 was attended by the families of Muhammad’s apparently random victims. As scholars and theologians continue to examine the moral, religious and societal implications of capital punishment, there is significant debate over whether the act does anything to comfort the victims of such violence.
Muhammad’s death sentence was appealed all the way to the U.S Supreme Court, which refused to hear it just before hearing arguments on a case that affects Muhammad’s first victim, Lee Boyd Malvo, the 16-year-old in search of a father figure who was trained, disciplined and taught to take aim at innocent, unsuspecting civilians as an act of divine warfare.
Currently before the court is whether juveniles found guilty of criminal acts (rape, homicide, severe aggravated assault and battery) can be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
As the confirmed triggerman on at least four of the murders, Malvo’s case may seem to many to merit such a sentence. There seems to be a legal consensus around life sentences for murder, but in some states, the cases vary widely. District attorneys, often feeling societal pressure to “get tough on crime,” have pushed for judicial power to try minors as adults or at least have the power to convey the same sentence for “adult crimes.”
Florida currently has 77 of the more than 100 prisoners serving life while tried and sentenced as minors. The state solicitor general recently told NPR, “We have [had] a serious crime problem in Florida over the years, so in our view that justifies the stiff penalties that have been assessed.”
If that sounds like a generality wrapped in an obfuscation, then you are hearing the same thing I did. In practical terms the solicitor general associates increased sentences as a deterrent to rising crime rates among juveniles. Almost one year ago, the PBS program “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” featured a segment on the plight of Kenneth Young, who was barely 15 when a local drug dealer told him if he didn’t help him in an armed robbery, he would attack Young’s mother, a single mother then addicted to crack cocaine. Unlike Malvo, Young never touched a gun; he collected security camera tapes while the ringleader held hotel employees at bay with a loaded handgun.
Young’s story, as it turns out, is not unique. One of the two cases now before the Supreme Court is that of a 13-year-old presently serving a life sentence for the rape of a 72-year-old woman. When interrogated about the rape, Joe Sullivan’s two older accomplices, both 16 at the time, named Sullivan for the rape, shortening their sentence. Even if Sullivan was the sole rapist, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the national median sentence for rape is 10 years, implying that a life sentence for a 13-year-old first offender seemed highly inconsistent.
Ultimately at issue is the accountability of a teenager. When pressed by the court, juvenile advocate Bryan Gowdy agreed that society had deemed murder as socially reprehensible enough to warrant a life sentence, but other offenses were questionable, given a juvenile’s capacity for rehabilitation, stating that “[a]dolescents are different in that we can’t tell at this age whether they are going to reform or not.”
Evangelicals have long labored over how to understand adolescent faith development, whether (and if so, at what point) a child or adolescent understands the deeper realities of religious experience. Recent research on adolescent brain development suggests that the “grey matter” is still forming up to and through puberty. Moreover, the seat of decision making seems to shift from the frontal cortex to the amygdala, the part of the emotional seat of the brain that often controls raging hormones and impulses associated with adolescent growth and development.
More recently, the National Institute for Mental Health has noted that the amygdala – often called the “gut” for its propensity to influence sharp, instinctive, emotion-based decisions – takes an even larger role when its most basic emotions are already evoked, namely fear.
Perhaps the larger question is whether teenagers are mentally capable of making decisions with adult-size consequences. As people of faith, our default position tends to lean toward reform; there is not a human being beyond redemption. It may well be that the larger question we must now consider is how our understanding of redemption, especially of teenagers who may not be mentally capable of making rational decisions, will lead us to act.
The proof will not be found in the courts, but in the reaction of those following the One who said, “Let the children come unto me.”
Trey Lyon is associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga.