Michael Samra was put to death by lethal injection last month, 22 years after he took part in a quadruple homicide.
Mark Duke, his friend and the mastermind of the crime, was also sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life in prison.
The difference? Duke was 16 at the time of the killing and Samra was 19.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that executions of those younger than 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional.
Samra said that made no sense.
He asked the Supreme Court to push the age to 21. He argued that teenagers’ brains are still developing even after they turn 18, which is deemed the age of majority for most purposes in the U.S.
The justices rejected Samra’s argument, but his case is raising questions about the legal system, liability for crimes and whether the bright line of 18 makes sense given modern understanding of psychology.
“Science should at least be a part of the discussion,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.”
The debate rages far beyond the death penalty.
Federal law sets a 21-year minimum for purchasing a handgun from a licensed dealer, although states have their own minimum ages for buyers of long guns. That ranges from 21 years for buyers in Illinois to 16 in Alaska, Minnesota and New York, and 14 in Montana, according to a 2018 Rand Corp. review.
In the 1980s, the federal government pushed states to raise their legal drinking ages from 18 to 21. More recently, a bipartisan push has emerged to raise the age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21, citing research on nicotine addiction.
The national voting age, though, has gone the other direction. A constitutional amendment in the 1970s set a floor of 18 years. The logic at the time was that if young men were being drafted to serve and die in war, then they should be able to vote on those who send them.
But the prospect of a 19-year-old being able to sign up for the military and to vote but not be allowed to make decisions on alcohol or tobacco use doesn’t sit well with some.
Perhaps the most contentious number is the age of consent for sexual activity. States have a complex web of rules, ranging from 16 to 18 years, with all sorts of creative add-ons such as closeness in age and carve-outs for instances of juveniles who get married.
In most states, the age of consent for marriage without a parent’s or court’s permission is 18. But Nebraska sets the age at 19 while Mississippi has a bifurcated law, with girls able to consent at 15 but boys needing to be 17, according to the Legal Information Institute.
“We have all these different social standards for what we consider mature,” said Abigail Baird, a psychological science professor at Vassar College.
“There really is not an easy way to make sense of all of it,” she said.
A millennium ago, European countries considered 15 to be the age of adulthood, at least for males, historians say. But during the Middle Ages, as the weight of a knight’s armor grew heavier, the age of eligibility for knighthood in England rose to 21, said Vivian E. Hamilton, a professor at William & Mary Law School.
In a 2016 article for the Tulane Law Review, she said age ended up imprinting on the rest of English society and that carried over to the eventual American Colonies.
She proposed eliminating a legal age of majority altogether and said it’s time to embrace context-specific rules that consider both the individuals and the activities.
“Science tells us a lot, but then it’s on us to look at each situation and each context and weigh the cost,” she said.
The psychologists agreed that the U.S. legal system has made a hash of it.
“We tend to set this age on an issue-by-issue basis, and we have a history of revising the age of when we think we made a bad decision,” Mr. Steinberg said.
The “legal” age often depends on the desirability of what’s at stake.
Most Americans would prefer fewer smokers, thus a push to raise the age, but they generally want more people to participate in elections, which explains lowering the voting age.
Some lawmakers want to go lower than 18. An amendment to create a 16-year-old voting age for federal elections gained the support of 125 Democrats on the House floor this year, though the proposal was defeated.
Mr. Steinberg said lowering the voting age makes sense because 16- and 17-year-olds can be just as astute as those decades older.
“The percentage of adults that make a bad voting decision that is uninformed isn’t any higher than the percentage of 16-year-olds that do,” he said.
Ms. Baird, though, opposes lowering the voting age because there is no evidence that children today are any more mature than they were when the 18-year-old age was set four decades ago.
She did wonder about where lines can be drawn.
For example, while increasing the age of buying tobacco may be a health move, it could open the door to limiting how much junk food a teen can purchase.
“You almost head into philosophical territory about how much policing do we want to do of each other,” Ms. Baird said.
Ms. Hamilton disagreed. She said tobacco dependency is a public health issue and youths tend to start smoking in their peer groups.
“There is such a risk of harm and so little benefit that I have no problem with our setting a higher age,” she said.
Perhaps the most obvious area where states are grappling with age and maturity is in the issuance of driver’s licenses. The magic age of getting a license at 16 has given way to graduated licenses, and some states don’t offer full unrestricted licenses until age 18.
The psychologists said the difference in the driving versus drinking ages is ironic.
“The damage people cause with a car versus the damage you can cause by having a couple of beers is very different,” Ms. Baird said.
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