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Expert testifies on death penalty

December 21, 2018

Human brains continue to mature until at least age 22, and people younger than that can have trouble controlling their actions and thinking about the consequences of those actions, a developmental psychologist testified Thursday.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, made the comments in a hearing in which an Allen County judge was asked to consider throwing out the death penalty as an option for Marcus Dansby, who is charged with killing four people : including his unborn child : in 2016.

Dansby, 23, was 20 years old when he was arrested. His lawyers have argued executing someone who was under 21 when crimes were committed violates a constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Steinberg, who said he opposes the death penalty, was among researchers who wrote briefs for the American Psychological Association presented to the U.S. Supreme Court for death penalty appeals. He also has testified as an expert witness in other capital punishment cases.

Adolescents : defined as ages 10 through at least 20 : are more impulsive, shortsighted, focus more on rewards than punishments and more susceptible to the influence of others, he said.

Those characteristics shouldn’t excuse behavior, Steinberg said, but they should be taken into account when punishment is considered.

“This is not about guilt or innocence, it’s about relative culpability,” he said during nearly two hours of testimony in Allen Superior Court.

Dansby is charged with four counts of murder in the Sept. 11, 2016, slayings of Traeven Harris, 18, Consuela Arrington, 37, Dajahiona Arrington, 18, and the fetus she was carrying. Trinity Hairston was shot and stabbed but survived, and Dansby is charged with attempted murder in that attack.

A man inside the house on Holton Avenue where the four were killed woke up to the sound of gunshots, called police and went upstairs to find Dansby covered in blood, placing what looked like a sheet over Consuela Arrington, police said. Dajahiona Arrington was 81/2 months pregnant and was shot in the head.

Police at the scene found a gun and a knife, each covered in blood, according to court documents.

Prosecutors filed documents in 2017 to seek the death penalty.

Defense attorneys Robert Gevers and Michelle Kraus filed a request in October asking Judge Fran Gull to set aside the death penalty as an option for Dansby, whose trial is scheduled for April. That came after they filed a nearly 100-page document asking Gull to declare the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional.

Gevers and Kraus cite shifting opinions on the age at which offenders can be put to death, recent court filings that invalidate death sentences for young defendants and increasing research on the maturity of young people’s brains as reasons to reconsider capital punishment.

The argument is based in part on a 2005 Supreme Court case that challenged the death penalty for a 17-year-old in Missouri. Justices in that case held that executing defendants younger than 18 is unconstitutional.

The filing by Dansby’s lawyers states courts must consider “evolving standards of decency” to determine whether punishments are cruel and unusual. It includes research showing people under 21 are more vulnerable to risk-taking behavior because their brains are not fully formed.

A trial court in Kentucky, relying partly on similar claims, ruled that state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional as applied to offenders younger than 21.

Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., told The Journal Gazette last month that more lawyers have been challenging capital punishment on similar grounds.

Steinberg, the psychologist, was called to testify by Dansby’s lawyers. He said several new studies are questioning the ability of young adults to make sound decisions when in stressful situations.

“I can say with absolute certainty brain maturation is ongoing beyond (age) 18,” Steinberg said. “If you’re asking that at age 21, the brain is still not fully mature : yes.”

Gull did not rule on the request to set aside the death penalty or to declare the state law unconstitutional. She ordered Allen County Deputy Prosecutors Tom Chaille, Alison Yeager and Jeff Steinberg to file briefs by Jan. 2.

Dansby’s trial is scheduled to begin April 16 and last more than a month.

Jurors will be chosen in Marion County and transported to Allen County for the trial.

mleblanc@jg.net

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