The Clash Between Science and the Law: Can Science Save Nineteen-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Life?
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The Supreme Court of the United States has found that youth under the age of 18 are fundamentally different than adults in ways that impact how they should be punished for their crimes. In Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence youth under the age of 18 to death, to life without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes, and to automatic life without the possibility of parole for homicide crimes (respectively). However, the underlying scientific studies that the Supreme Court relied on in making these decisions in Roper, Graham and Miller stand for the proposition that a youth's brain is not fully developed until his or her mid-to late twenties—well after the youth celebrates his or her 18th birthday. This Article analyzes the clash between the Supreme Court's decisions to draw the line at the age of 18 for the harshest criminal penalties and the scientific studies that confirm a youth's brain is not fully developed until his or her mid-to-late twenties. To demonstrate this clash, the Article takes an in-depth look at the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the nineteen year old charged with setting off explosive devices at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, now facing the death penalty. The Article argues that if the Supreme Court were to fully recognize the scientific studies that it relied on in Roper, Graham and Miller, scientific studies that show a youth's brain is not fully developed until his mid-to-late twenties, that recognition could be the difference between life and death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Although the Article concludes that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the case where Supreme Court will come to terms with these underlying scientific studies (given the severity of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's crimes), the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev exemplifies a true clash between science and the law.