Bioethics News

Was the Boston bomber too young to be responsible?

As the trial for the Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev draws to a close, experts are debating whether the accused’s age diminishes his culpability. Together with his brother, 19-year-old Tsarnaev planned and executed the devastating Boston Bombings on April 15, 2013, which killed three civilians and injured 264 others. In a subsequent manhunt the Tsarnaev brothers killed a police officer and wounded 15 others.

Like Dzokhar’s defence lawyers, Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg acknowledges that adolescence does not entail innocence. He does, however, believe it might diminish the defendant’s guilt:

“The issue is not whether adolescent immaturity excuses criminal conduct — it doesn’t — but whether it diminishes someone’s responsibility for his actions, in much the same way that coercion or unusually strong emotions might…

“Research… has identified the neural bases of adolescents’ intensified susceptibility to peer pressure and is revealing the period to be one of heightened neuroplasticity, or capacity for the brain to change.”

Writing in the Boston Globe, Harvard law professor and former federal judge Nancy Gertner suggested that adolescent psychology and neuroscience are worthy of consideration:

“He was 19, just barely past the date at which the law acknowledges an adolescent’s immature brain. But while the law recognizes 18 as the cutoff point for the death penalty, neuroscience suggests that the period of relative brain immaturity stretches into the early 20s.”

David Hoose, death penalty lawyer and legal analyst, noted that the trial has many recent legal precedents. “This is a very hot issue in criminal justice circles these days … that young men really do not mature fully in terms of the neuroscience until they are in the mid-20s,” he said.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.