The Adolescent Brain and Mens Rea

Delinquency adjudications and criminal convictions of minors who have been transferred to Superior Court for trial as adults both require that the elements of the offense charged are proved beyond a reasonable doubt, including that the required criminal state of mind, or mens rea, existed.  The adolescent mind has been the subject of substantial scientific research. This research grounded several United State Supreme Court decisions related to criminal punishment of minors and when Miranda warnings are necessary. However, the question of how the science of adolescent brain development does or does not connect to the mens rea requirements of various offenses is not well litigated. The North Carolina Court of Appeals dipped a toe in this area in its recent ruling in State v. Smith, __ N.C. App. __ (June 6, 2023).

The Adolescent Brain and U.S. Supreme Court Jurisprudence

It would likely take a few law review articles to sufficiently detail the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on the difference between juveniles and adults. Here is a very abbreviated primer.

Beginning in 2005 with its decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for crimes committed by anyone under the age of 18. In its ruling, the Court held that there are fundamental differences between juveniles and adults. The Court discussed how certain characteristics of youth render them less culpable, which in turn diminishes the penological justifications for the death penalty. Those characteristics include

  1. A lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility that result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,
  2. Increased vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure, and
  3. Personality traits that are not as well formed and are more transitory.

Five years later, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of life without parole sentences for juveniles who did not commit homicide and that these juveniles must be given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). The Court reiterated the reasoning about the unique nature of adolescence included in Roper. This included that, given the lack of maturity, vulnerability to peer pressure, and ongoing development in character prominent in adolescence, it is difficult to distinguish between a juvenile whose offending reflects transient immaturity and a juvenile whose offending reflects irreparable corruption. Therefore, while juveniles are not absolved from responsibility for criminal actions, their criminal actions are not as morally reprehensible as those of adults. The Court also recognized that psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.

This line of reasoning was extended to hold that mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment. Miller v. Alabama,567 U.S. 460 (2012). Once again, the Court relied on brain science (as well as what any parent knows). The Court pointed to transient rashness, a proclivity for risk, and an inability to assess consequences as distinctive attributes of youth that render imposition of the most severe penalties on youth too great a risk for disproportionate punishment. The concept that some adolescent crime reflects transient immaturity was reinforced in 2016 when the Court determined that the decision in Miller was retroactive on state collateral review. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016).

While the Court seemingly took a step back from this line of cases with its decision in Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021), neither the reasoning nor the holding in Jones disturbed this jurisprudence related to the brain differences between adolescents and adults. The Jones decision held that a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required to impose a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile homicide conviction. The Court held that, while the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life without parole sentences in juvenile homicide cases, a discretionary sentencing scheme that does not require a finding of permanent incorrigibility is constitutionally sufficient. The decision explicitly declined to overrule Miller or Montgomery and it did not speak to the unique features of adolescence.

The developmental differences between children and adults were also central to the Court’s holding that a child’s age properly informs the analysis of whether a juvenile is in custody for purposes of Miranda warnings. In a case that originated right here in Chapel Hill, the Court stated, “to ignore the very real differences between children and adults—would be to deny children the full scope of the procedural safeguards that Miranda guarantees to adults.” J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 281 (2011).

Recent Brain Research Continues to Find Significant Differences Between Adolescents and Adults

The Center for Law and Brain Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital released a White Paper on the Science of Late Adolescence: A Guide for Judges, Attorneys and Policy Makers in January of 2022. The white paper focuses on the difference between brain development of those in late adolescence (ages 18-21) in comparison to young adults (ages 22 -25). It also contains substantial information on brain development during middle adolescence (ages 14-17).

The white paper explains that one of the major differences between the middle and late adolescent brain and an adult brain is the impact that emotional content has on self-control. According to the white paper, brain research shows that ““[a]dolescents, more so than children and adults, show impaired self-control when inhibiting responses to negative and positive emotional cues.” (p. 13). Adolescents show more sensitivity to sustained emotional arousal and, when under stress, are more likely to pursue immediate rewards instead of weighing long-term consequences and costs. Researchers found that the brain’s structural connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the striatum is associated with risky decision-making that occurs under stressful conditions. These connections are still growing during middle and late adolescence.

The Argument in State v. Smith

Smith was convicted of committing first-degree murder when he was sixteen. According to witness statements, Smith shot the victim, Mr. Shields, in retaliation for Mr. Shields having sex with Smith’s fourteen-year-old sister. The witness also stated that as Smith got out of a car to approach the victim, someone was yelling at him not to “let it slide.” Slip Op. at 5.

Smith’s attorney requested that the court provide the following jury instruction:

In this case, you may examine the defendant’s actions and words, and all of the circumstances surrounding the offense, to determine what the defendant’s state of mind was at the time of the offense. However, the law recognizes that juveniles are not the same as adults. An adult is presumed to be in full possession of his senses and knowledgeable of the consequences of his actions. By contrast, the brains of adolescents are not fully developed in the areas that control impulses, foresee consequences, and temper emotions. Additionally, adolescents often lack the capacity to exercise mature judgment and possess only an incomplete ability to understand the world around them.

You should consider all the circumstances in the case, any reasonable inference you draw from the evidence, and differences between the way that adult and adolescent brains functions in determining whether the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant intentionally killed the victim after premeditation and deliberation. Slip Op. at 21.

The court denied the request to provide this instruction and that denial was contested as part of the appeal. The proposed instruction raises an interesting question. Does the science regarding adolescent brain development impact the premeditation and deliberation necessary to be guilty of first-degree murder?

What are Premeditation and Deliberation?

Premeditation requires that the person thought about the act beforehand for some length of time, however short. State v. Bullock, 26 N.C. 253 (1990). Given that the research on adolescent brain development speaks to differences in thinking, but not the very capacity to think, it is challenging to understand how developmental brain differences might impact premeditation.

However, an assessment of deliberation could arguably be impacted by the unique features of the adolescent brain. Deliberation “means an intent to kill, carried out in a cool state of blood, in furtherance of a fixed design for revenge or to accomplish an unlawful purpose and not under the influence of a violent passion, suddenly aroused by lawful or just cause or legal provocation.” State v. Bullock, 26 N.C. 253, 257 (1990). The Supreme Court of North Carolina explained that “[t]he phrase “cool state of blood” means that the defendant’s anger or emotion must not have been such as to overcome the defendant’s reason.” State v. Hunt, 330 N.C. 425, 427 (1991).

Smith’s Deliberation

As described above, the brain research on adolescent development raises questions about an adolescent’s ability to reason when in an aroused emotional state. In the present case, it appears that Smith may have been angered about the victim’s sexual relationship with his young sister and that he was being egged on by someone else. Can a sixteen-year-old brain form the requisite deliberation under those emotionally stressful circumstances? Or do developmental differences mean that emotional arousal can sometimes overcome an adolescent’s ability to reason in a manner such that there is no deliberation?

The Holding in State v. Smith

The Court of Appeals was not convinced that differences between adolescents and adults were relevant to the jury instructions in this case. The decision upholds the trial court’s determination not to allow the jury instruction. While the court of appeals acknowledged that the line of U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence states that children are constitutionally different from adults, the court highlighted that the difference has been applied to sentencing determinations and not determinations of guilt. The court also explained that the jury instruction might actually mislead the jury because age at time of committing the offense is not an element of the offense. The court stated “[d]efendant’s age is not considered nor contemplated in the analysis of premeditation and deliberation.” Slip. Op. at 22.

However, the court of appeals may have left the door open on this question, as it noted that no evidence was presented on adolescent brain function. While the court was clear in this decision that age is not a factor in premeditation and deliberation, the research on adolescent brain development continues to evolve. Might the court’s analysis of the meaning of deliberation be influenced if evidence regarding an adolescent’s ability to reason during highly emotional situations is presented? The white paper explanation of how adolescent self-control is negatively impacted by high-stress situations may factor into the analysis of whether an adolescent was acting with a “cool state of blood.”  As the research evolves, legal arguments about the application of that research to necessary states of mind are also likely to continue.

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