Temple Professor Discusses ‘Brain Development’ Appeal in Steubenville Rape Case

Since the “unconscious girls can’t say no” argument didn’t do the trick, Walter Madison, one of the attorneys for the two teenage boys convicted of rape on Sunday, is now trying to blame his client’s brain. To recap, 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond were both found “delinquent” (the equivalent of guilty in juvenile court) last Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, last August. Almost immediately after the sentence came down, Madison, Richmond’s lawyer, appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight to present his appeal strategy:

Madison: “I don’t believe that a person at 75 years old should have to explain for something they did at 16 when scientific evidence would support your brain isn’t fully developed … when evidence in the case would suggest that you were under the influence.”

(That last part is particularly rich. Richmond’s original defense strategy was that his client was innocent because the victim was drinking. Now he’s arguing, in part, that his client is innocent because he was drinking.) As Morgan is wont to do on his show, he disagreed with his guest.

Morgan: “I’ve got three teenage sons. And when you get to 16, 17, your brain’s developed enough to know that you don’t go raping girls.”

Madison: “There are people who know better than you that would disagree.”

To be clear, the premise of Madison’s appeal seems to be based in the fact that Richmond may be required to register as a sex offender for life. Reports indicates that that decision isn’t being made at this time. So it’s not at all yet clear that Richmond will be required to do so, especially given the Ohio Supreme Court struck down mandatory lifetime sex offender registration for juveniles just last year, citing the practice as cruel and unusual punishment.

Challenging the possible registration requirement is an entirely different matter than appealing to overturn a guilty verdict. In any case, on Madison’s suggestion, PW reached out to a person who would know better about this than all of us.

Temple University’s Dr. Laurence Steinberg is one of the country’s leading experts in adolescent brain development and former director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent and Juvenile Justice. Steinberg has made significant contributions to the body of work on adolescent brain development that Madison will surely be referencing in his appeal.

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PW: I don’t mean to ask you to summarize your 13 books and 300 articles on adolescent brain development, but, could you?

Steinberg: The quick layperson summary would be that compared to adults, adolescents are much more likely to be drawn to the immediate rewards present and not think long-term and are more likely to have difficulty controlling their impulses.

PW: The attorney for one of the convicted rapists in Steubenville is arguing that his guilty verdict should be overturned because his client’s brain isn’t fully developed because he is 16 years old.

Steinberg: And that’s why he was tried as a juvenile. It seems to me that the sentence that he received is what we want to happen to juveniles who commit crimes, which is that they stay in the juvenile system, at least for first time offender and … that some of the sentence includes rehabilitation. I’m not a lawyer, so I shouldn’t comment on a legal strategy, but it seems to be that they don’t have much of a leg to stand on. No one has ever said, including me, that kids should be excused from criminal responsibility because their brains aren’t developed—just that they should be punished differently than the way we punish adults and, when possible, be kept in the juvenile justice system.

PW: In your work and in the field, is there research regarding the adolescent brain and inclination to rape? Usually the examples used to illustrate impulse control are things like doing drugs or stealing.

Steinberg: It’s a harder case to make. Sometimes when you’re talking about a violent crime, like say an armed robbery or some kind of serious assault, you can sometimes make the a case that kids, by virtue of their immaturity, neurobiologically and psychologically, are less able to control their impulses and they’re more likely to act on the spur of the moment. But that doesn’t sound like what this crime was, so I think it’s a little harder to make the brain immaturity case.

PW: So you don’t often see your work being used to justify criminal behavior.

Steinberg: Our research is typically used to justify keeping a kid in the juvenile justice system and not punishing them as adults. To the extent you want to consider what they did a reckless act, which we don’t know it was, then to an extent the brain research applies, but it makes it clear no matter what the brain research says, these kids are responsible for their actions. The brain research never said kids are not responsible. It simply says because they’re still developing, we should treat them differently than adults. And that’s what exactly is done here.

PW: Any final thoughts on the subject?

Steinberg: I think there’s some danger in using the brain argument to say … this is just kind of normal adolescent behavior, and it’s not, by any means. It’s serious criminal behavior and should be treated as such.

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