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INSIGHT: Adolescent Brain Immaturity Makes Pending Execution Inappropriate

Sept. 17, 2020, 8:00 AM

The federal government resumed executions this summer after a 17-year hiatus. Now it plans to carry out the first execution in nearly 70 years against an individual who was a teenager at the time of his crime. Christopher Vialva, who was 19 at the time of his offense, has a Sept. 24 execution date in federal prison in Indiana.

More than two decades have passed since Vialva and four co-defendants, ages 15, 16, 16, and 18, committed their crimes. In an ill-planned effort to steal a car and money, they kidnapped and murdered Todd and Stacie Bagley. The crime they committed was abhorrent, and there is no question that they deserve to be held accountable.

But to make a final judgment about a person’s life based on a crime he committed as a teenager is to ignore what the last 20-plus years of research has taught us about the developing brains of teenagers and adolescents. This science suggests that no person of this age should be eligible for capital punishment—regardless of their personal history, intellectual capacity, eventual maturity, or the vileness of their crime.

Biological Explanations for Poor Teen Decision-Making

Since Vialva’s trial in 2000, researchers have developed new brain imaging technologies that give us insight into the physiological underpinnings for the emotional reactivity and poor decision-making that characterizes teenagers. These technologies have helped confirm that there are structural and biological explanations for what any parent knows: teenagers often make ill-conceived decisions and take serious risks, especially when they are with peers.

Because of this, most forms of risky and reckless behavior peak in adolescence, as is borne out in the rates of driving fatalities, unprotected sex, drug use, and more recently disregard for Covid-19 regulations. In fact, sensation-seeking and risk taking usually peak around age 19.

The findings from neuroimaging studies help explain why. A network of brain regions featuring the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain involved in reasoning and executive functioning—remains developmentally immature well into the mid-20s. At the same time, the parts of a teenager’s brain that regulate reward, incentives, and the experience of pleasure are relatively over-reactive. The results of this developmental mismatch are profound.

Multiple studies, including some we’ve conducted at Temple University, show that teenagers as a group are most susceptible to making rash or reckless decisions when they are in stressful or emotionally evocative situations, even when their “rational brains” know better.

In several studies, we’ve also seen that the presence of peers increases risk taking among adolescents, but not in adults. Deficits in the control of emotions and behavior are found to be further heightened in teenagers who have suffered from some form of abuse.

Vialva, the son of a Black father and a white mother, was raised in an abusive home. His mother had a mental disorder, his father was absent, and his grandfather and stepfather were overtly racist. He also shows signs of organic brain damage from a neonatal infection that infiltrated his brain, likely resulting in cognitive limitations that he continued to exhibit even upon high school graduation.

Considering his childhood abuse, the mental duress that he must have been under at the time of his crime (he was kicked out of his childhood home only three days earlier), the involvement of his peers, and the extreme emotions he must have experienced as the carjacking and robbery began to go awry, it’s not difficult to speculate that Vialva’s brain wasn’t functioning like a fully matured adult.

In fact, studies exploring how conditions of this type influence brain activity show that while a 19-year-old might possess a brain that looks “adult-like” and that supports mature cognitive performance under calm or “neutral” conditions, that same brain tends to look much more like that of a younger kid when evocative emotions are triggered, resulting in significantly weaker cognitive performance.

Despite these hallmarks of the teen brain, it’s important to know that teenaged immaturity is temporary. Nearly all teenagers who engage in antisocial or violent behavior desist as their brains mature and they become more capable of resisting peer influence and of tempering emotional impulses. By some estimates, of the many adolescents who commit crimes, no more than 6% are “lifecourse persistent offenders.” It is near impossible to know who these individuals are at the time of sentencing.

By his attorneys’ accounts, Vialva simply isn’t the same person today that he was 20 years ago. Although he has been held in solitary confinement on death row since 2000, they report that he has grown into a mature, thoughtful, and peaceful man who expresses deep and genuine remorse for his crimes.

U.S. Supreme Court Restricts Juvenile Sentencing

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has begun to acknowledge that youth matters for sentencing, first in 2005 by prohibiting the use of the death penalty for individuals who are younger than 18, and later by severely restricting the availability of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

These decisions were driven by the court’s acknowledgment that a juvenile’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s, his traits are “less fixed,” and his actions are less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].”

Although we now understand that physiologically, the brain of an 18- or 19-year-old remains immature, the Supreme Court has declined to reconsider the bright-line rule it drew in 2005. Now is the time to do so.

Executing Vialva, or any person convicted of crimes they committed as a teenager, is inconsistent with the retributive purpose of the death penalty as it assumes that he engaged in a moral calculus we know his brain was not equipped to make.

Hopefully in this instance, those who have the power to decide whether Vialva will live or die will follow the science and stop his scheduled execution.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Dr. Jason Chein is a professor of psychology at Temple University and the director of the Temple University Brain Research and Imaging Center (TUBRIC). His research focuses on the use of MRI and other tools of cognitive neuroscience to understand human cognition and executive functioning, learning, problem solving, and decision-making, the development of which are all hallmarks of adolescence.

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