In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided June 26, 1989

Justice O’Connor, Concurring


Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), was a United States Supreme Court case that sanctioned the imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were at least 16 years of age at the time of the crime. This decision came one year after Thompson v. Oklahoma, in which the Court had held that a 15-year-old offender could not be executed because to do so would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In 2003, the Governor of Kentucky Paul E. Patton commuted the death sentence of Kevin Stanford, an action followed by the Supreme Court two years later in Roper v. Simmons overruling Stanford and holding that all juvenile offenders are exempt from the death penalty.

Topic: Criminal Procedure*Court vote: 5–4
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion.
Holding: The judgments are affirmed. The imposition of capital punishment on an individual for a crime committed at 16 or 17 years of age does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Citation: 492 U.S. 361 Docket: 87–5765Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Last Term, in Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U. S. 815, 487 U. S. 857 -858 (1988) (opinion concurring in judgment), I expressed the view that a criminal defendant who would have been tried as a juvenile under state law, but for the granting of a petition waiving juvenile court jurisdiction, may only be executed for a capital offense if the State's capital punishment statute specifies a minimum age at which the commission of a capital crime can lead to an offender's execution and the defendant had reached that minimum age at the time the crime was committed. As a threshold matter, I indicated that such specificity is not necessary to avoid constitutional problems if it is clear that no national consensus forbids the imposition of capital punishment for crimes committed at such an age. Id. at 487 U. S. 857. Applying this two-part standard in Thompson, I concluded that Oklahoma's imposition of a death sentence on an individual who was 15 years old at the time he committed a capital offense should be set aside. Applying the same standard today, I conclude that the death sentences for capital murder imposed by Missouri and Kentucky on petitioners Wilkins and Stanford respectively should not be set aside, because it is sufficiently clear that no national consensus forbids the imposition of capital punishment on 16or 17-year-old capital murderers.

In Thompson, I noted that

[t]he most salient statistic that bears on this case is that every single American legislature that has expressly set a minimum age for capital punishment has set that age at 16 or above.

Id. at 487 U. S. 849. It is this difference between Thompson and these cases, more than any other, that convinces me there is no national consensus forbidding the imposition of capital punishment for crimes committed at the age of 16 and older. See ante at 492 U. S. 370 -372. As the Court indicates, "a majority of the States that permit capital punishment authorize it for crimes committed at age 16 or above...." Ante at 492 U. S. 371. Three States, including Kentucky, have specifically set the minimum age for capital punishment at 16, see Ind.Code §35-50-2-3(b) (1988); Ky.Rev.Stat.Ann. §640.040(1) (Baldwin 1987); Nev.Rev.Stat. §176.025 (1987), and a fourth, Florida, clearly contemplates the imposition of capital punishment on 16-year-olds in its juvenile transfer statute, see Fla.Stat. §39.02(5)(c) (1987). Under these circumstances, unlike the "peculiar circumstances" at work in Thompson, I do not think it necessary to require a state legislature to specify that the commission of a capital crime can lead to the execution of a 16or 17-year-old offender. Because it is sufficiently clear that today no national consensus forbids the imposition of capital punishment in these circumstances, "the implicit nature of the [Missouri] Legislature's decision [is] not... constitutionally problematic." 487 U.S. at 487 U. S. 857. This is true, a fortiori, in the case of Kentucky, which has specified 16 as the minimum age for the imposition of the death penalty. The day may come when there is such general legislative rejection of the execution of 16or 17-year-old capital murderers that a clear national consensus can be said to have developed. Because I do not believe that day has yet arrived, I concur in Parts I, II, III, and IV-A of the Court's opinion, and I concur in its judgment.

I am unable, however, to join the remainder of the plurality's opinion for reasons I stated in Thompson. 492 U. S. " ante at 492 U. S. 378, the suggestion that, beyond an assessment of the specific enactments of American legislatures, there remains a constitutional obligation imposed upon this Court to judge whether the " nexus between the punishment imposed and the defendant's blameworthiness'" is proportional. Thompson, supra at 487 U. S. 853, quoting Enmund v. Florida, 458 U. S. 782, 458 U. S. 825 (1982) (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). 492 U. S. In my view, this Court does have a constitutional obligation to conduct proportionality analysis. See Penry v. Lynaugh, ante at 492 U. S. 335 -340; Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137, 481 U. S. 155 -158 (1987); Enmund, 458 U.S. at 458 U. S. 797 -801; id. at 458 U. S. 825 -826 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). In Thompson, I specifically identified age-based statutory classifications as "relevant to Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis." 487 U.S. at 487 U. S. 854 (opinion concurring in judgment). Thus, although I do not believe that these particular cases can be resolved through proportionality analysis, see Thompson, supra, at 487 U. S. 853 -854, I reject the suggestion that the use of such analysis is improper as a matter of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Accordingly, I join all but Parts IV-B and V of the Court's opinion.

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