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September 10, 2004

The juvenile death penalty – Lesson Plan

By Michelle Parrini, a Chicago-based editor and writer of teaching materials


Law, Government, Civics

Estimated Time

Two 45-minute class periods


The purpose of this lesson is to teach students about the Eighth Amendment and how the U.S. Supreme Court makes determinations about what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment through the example of the death penalty for juveniles.


On January 26, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to reconsider whether the juvenile death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and usual punishment. The case will probably be heard by the court in October or November of 2004. During this lesson, students will read and discuss a NewsHour article and learn key facts about the juvenile death penalty in the U.S. Then students will discuss how the court has made decisions in the past about what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, students will judge for themselves whether the juvenile death penalty today violates the Eighth Amendment by applying previously established principles of law to their analysis.


Day 1
  1. Begin by reading the following to your students:

    Christopher Simmons committed murder at age 17 in Missouri. Napoleon Beazley committed murder at age 17 in Texas. They were both tried as adults and received death sentences. Christopher was raised in an alcoholic, dysfunctional family. His stepfather was psychologically and mentally abusive. Christopher had no previous criminal record. A psychologist found that he suffered from mental illness. Napoleon had never been arrested before the murder. He was senior class president, and was runner up for his high school’s title of “most athletic.” He was a regular church-goer and was highly regarded by its members. He had a reputation for being “polite, courteous, respectful, friendly and kind.” Napoleon and Christopher both expressed remorse for their crimes. They were thought of as model prisoners. Christopher was white. Napoleon was black. On May 28, 2002, Napoleon was executed in Texas, while Christopher was granted a temporary stay of execution while the Missouri Supreme Court considered his case.

    • After you read the case information, ask students:
      • Do you think the stories you heard are true? (Ask them to provide their reasons).
      • Why do we have laws that govern behavior? Answers may vary, but may include, to establish order, create security, prevent crime, and/or protect individual rights.
  2. Ask students to reflect silently about someone they know personally who made a regretted mistake that changed his/her life. Did that person get a second chance? After giving students time to reflect silently, ask the following questions:
    • Do you believe young people who make mistakes should be given a second chance? Why or why not?
    • Do you believe that young people who commit horrible crimes, such as murder, are just as blameworthy as adults who commit similar crimes? Why or why not? (Throughout this lesson, ask students to provide their reasons for their positions.)
  3. Explain that the stories about Simmons and Beazley are true. The Simmons case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October or November of 2004. Napoleon Beazley was executed at age twenty-five. Ask students what surprised them about the Beazley and Simmons cases. Be prepared to address stereotyping.
  4. Next, ask students to read the NewsHour article “Supreme Court to Review Execution of Juvenile Killers.” If you wish, distribute the handout “Death Penalty Cases Mentioned in the NewsHour Article,” or use it for your reference. After students read the article, discuss the main points. Ask students the following questions to check for reading comprehension, and elaborate as suggested below to provide further background in preparation for Day 2 activities.
    • What is the article about? (Answers may vary, however, students should understand that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case to consider if executing people who were under eighteen years of age when they committed their crime violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The case is Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633 (Cert. Granted Jan. 26, 2004). The case will be heard in October or November of 2004.)
    • Which section of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment? (Answer: The Eighth Amendment (1791): “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”)
    • How many countries execute juveniles for crimes? (Answer: Since 1990, juveniles have been executed in eight countries. Seventy-eight countries in the world, including the U.S., have a death penalty. Extension Questions: Which eight countries have executed juveniles since 1990? China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. What surprises you about the list of countries that executes juveniles?)
    • Do all states in the United States have death penalty statutes? Do they all execute juveniles for crimes? (Answer: Not all states in the country have death penalty statutes [statutes are laws passed by legislatures]. Thirty-eight states, the federal government, and the military impose the death penalty. Twelve states and Washington D.C. ban the death penalty. Twenty states apply the death penalty to juveniles who commit crimes when they are under the age of eighteen. [On March 3, 2004, the governors of South Dakota and Wyoming signed bills establishing eighteen as the minimum age at which the death penalty may be sought for a juvenile.])
    • When can juveniles who commit crimes be executed in states with juvenile death penalty laws? The minimum age at which juveniles may receive a death sentence has been determined by the U.S. Supreme Court through a series of cases referred to in the NewsHour article. (See “Death Penalty Cases Mentioned in the News Hour Article”) In the states that do impose the death penalty on juveniles, a juvenile must be at least sixteen when he/she committed his/her crime to receive a death sentence, but that minimum age varies by state from sixteen to eighteen years of age.
      • While discussing this question, distribute the Handout “Minimum Age of Application of the Death Penalty.” Students should understand that each state has its own death penalty statutes and that the ages on the handout refer to the age at which a person commits a crime, not the age at which a person may be executed.
      • Extension Question about the “Minimum Age” handout: Based on the handout, what patterns do students note, if any, about the minimum age for the death penalty across the country? For example, do states on the East coast seem to impose it at a certain age, while states in the Midwest or South at others? What about rural states or states that have large populations, such as California, New York and Illinois?
    • What is it about the structure of government in the United States that allows different states to impose the death penalty at different ages rather than at one standard age? (Answer: Use this question as an opportunity to discuss federalism. Students should understand that we have a federal system of government, which means that power is shared between the individual states and the federal government and each has limited powers. The states retain power over particular areas and the federal government retains power over other particular limited areas.)
  5. After concluding the discussion of the article, ask a student to read aloud the following quote from Justice Stevens in your highlighted copy:

    “The practice of executing such offenders [juveniles under 18] is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice.”

    Ask students, what do you think Justice Stevens meant by “evolving standards of decency?” Explain that Justice Stevens included the sentence in his dissent when the U.S. Supreme Court voted not to consider hearing the juvenile death penalty case In re Stanford. [Dissent is a justice’s disagreement with the decision of the majority of justices in a case; when a justice puts the disagreement in writing, it is referred to as a dissenting opinion.] Explain that the court sometimes periodically reconsiders questions of law on which it has previously ruled. Ask students if they can think of examples of laws that have changed at different times throughout history.

  6. Distribute the handout “The Eighth Amendment and Cruel and Unusual Punishment: How Does the U.S. Supreme Court Make Decisions?” Discuss key aspects of juvenile death penalty law as determined by the court:
    • Punishments must be proportional to crimes.
    • Punishments may not offend evolving standards of decency. In other words, contemporary standards, not the standards of the Eighteenth century at the time the constitution was written, or even standards of thirty years ago are applied to legal questions [about the Eighth Amendment] when considered today.
    • To determine contemporary standards of decency for punishments, the court evaluates “objective factors,” or “objective indicators” to define national consensus on the legality of punishment, including activity of state legislatures, the frequency with which sentences are imposed, the frequency with which they are carried out, the opinions of professional experts and other organizations, and national and international views.
      The court conducts its own independent analysis of the application of the death penalty to determine if it meets the social goals of and the underlying justification for it, which are deterrence and retribution. [Define deterrence and retribution].
  7. Conclude your discussion for the day by asking students: Do you support the death penalty for juvenile offenders? Why or why not?
Day 2
  1. Begin by reviewing the key aspects of juvenile death penalty case law discussed the previous day. [Case law is the reported decisions of appeals courts and other courts which make new interpretations of the law and establish precedents.]
    • Distribute the handout “Objective Factors: The Juvenile Death Penalty.”
  2. Break students into small groups. Make sure groups are composed of odd numbers of students. Explain that each small group is to objectively analyze the factors on the handout about the juvenile death penalty in the United States, first individually, and then as a group. Placing their personal opinions about the death penalty for juveniles aside, students should ask themselves, does this factor strongly suggest that executing juveniles offends contemporary and evolving standards of decency? Does it moderately suggest that executing juveniles offends contemporary and evolving standards of decency? Is the factor a weak indicator?
  3. Once students have considered the factors individually, the groups should discuss their overall impressions of each factor. Placing their own individual positions about the death penalty aside, the charge of the group is to decide if these factors, taken as a whole, objectively indicate that the national consensus is that the juvenile death penalty offends contemporary standards of decency. [Consensus means general agreement.] Ask each group to vote on the question “Is it the national consensus that executing juveniles offends evolving standards of decency, and as such, violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution?” One student should record the group’s vote. (Note: Set a time limit for each aspect of the activity.)
  4. Reconvene the class. Ask each group to share its decision and the vote tally. Explain that the factors analyzed by students were factors described by the Missouri Supreme Court in Simmons v. Roper to support its decision that executing juveniles offended evolving standards of decency and was a cruel and unusual punishment. The exception is that the Missouri Supreme Court considered a public opinion poll of Missouri citizens as opposed to a national opinion poll. Discuss the factors and the votes of the groups. Explain that the U.S. Supreme Court will also be weighing these same factors when it considers the Roper v. Simmons. Ask students, do you think there are other factors the court should consider, such as the number and type of organizations that continue to support the death penalty for juveniles?
  5. Explain that the court will also conduct an individual analysis to determine if the social purposes of the death penalty are met when it is applied to juveniles. Review the main issues the court will probably consider when it makes its independent evaluation. The court will probably consider retribution and deterrence. (See “How Does the U.S. Supreme Court Make Decisions? The Eighth Amendment and Cruel and Unusual Punishment.”)
  6. Conclude your discussion with the following questions:
    • Over the past two days, have you changed your position about whether juveniles under the age of eighteen should be executed for particular crimes? Why or why not?
    • Do you think that the decision to impose the death penalty on juveniles should be left up to each individual state or that the entire nation should follow one standard? Why or why not?

Extension Activities:

  1. Ask students to read the dissent of Justice Scalia in Atkins v. Virginia. Discuss his criticisms of some of the factors utilized by the majority of the court in its decision that executing mentally retarded individuals violated the Eighth Amendment. What does Justice Rehnquist maintain are the two most reliable types of evidence of national consensus on the death penalty? [State legislation and the practices of juries.]
  2. Next, ask students to reexamine in their small groups the handout “Objective Factors: The Juvenile Death Penalty.” Considering only the two factors that Justice Rehnquist believes can indicate a national consensus on the death penalty, ask groups to vote once more on the question “Is it the national consensus that executing juveniles offends evolving standards of decency, and as such, violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution?” Ask groups to report back to the class. Compare the results of the two analyses. Do students agree with Justice Rehnquist’s position? Why or why not?
  3. Ask students to research international law about executing juveniles. Questions to consider might include:
    • What are the sources of international law?
    • What are the stated positions of international law on the juvenile death penalty?
    • How many of the treaties has the United States ratified?
    • What is the international opinion about the application of the death penalty to juveniles in the United States?
    • Should the United States consider international views about its own domestic polices? Why or why not?
  4. Ask students in small groups to investigate organizations that support the death penalty for juveniles. Each group should prepare a report about the general mission and purpose of the organization, its constituency, and its arguments in support of the death penalty for juveniles. After each group delivers its report, discuss the arguments presented by these proponents of the death penalty for juveniles. Are some arguments stronger than others? After researching the positions of these organizations, ask students if their own personal positions on the death penalty have changed. Why or why not?
  1. All factors on this handout are quotes or paraphrases from Simmons v. Roper, 112 SW.3d 397 (Mo. 2003), with the exception of the reference to the May 2002 Gallup Poll. For the May 2002 Gallup Poll, see “Facts bout the Death Penalty, March 30, 2004,” Death Penalty Information Center, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org. The facts about the number of states that have the death penalty for juveniles differ in the handout from those in the lesson text because at the time of the Missouri Supreme Court decision, South Dakota and Wyoming had not yet passed legislation abolishing the juvenile death penalty.
  2. For more information about these cases, see American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, Death Penalty Cases to Watch and the International Justice Project.
  3. The Teaching Tolerance Web site has numerous lessons and teaching resources about stereotyping, .
  4. Victor Streib, “The Juvenile Death Penalty Today: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes, January 1973-September 2003.”
  5. For more about federalism, see Frederick Drake and Lynn R. Nelson, “Teaching About Federalism in the United States: ERIC Digest.”
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