NYT: Death Penalty for Juveniles Barred
Let's hope this is the first step in eliminating a practice most common in tyrannical regimes.
Supreme Court Bars Death Penalty for Juvenile Killers
By DAVID STOUT
Published: March 1, 2005
WASHINGTON, March 1 - The Supreme Court ruled today, in one of the most closely watched capital punishment cases in years, that imposing the death penalty on convicted murderers who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional.
The 5-to-4 decision, arising from a Missouri case, holds that executing young killers violates "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," and that American society has come to regard juveniles as less culpable than adult criminals.
The ruling, which acknowledged "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty," erases the death sentences imposed on about 70 defendants who were juveniles at the time they killed. Although 19 states nominally permit the execution of juvenile murderers, only Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma have executed any in the past decade.
The case decided today had attracted attention around the world. Briefs on behalf of the young Missouri killer, Christopher Simmons, had been filed by the European Union, the 45-member Council of Europe and other organizations. A brief filed by former United Nations diplomats asserted that the United States' failure to repudiate the execution of juveniles was an irritant in international relations.
Until today, the United States and Somalia were the only nations that permitted putting teenage criminals to death. The court's ruling today held that, while the "overwhelming weight of international opinion" was not controlling, it nevertheless provided "respected and significant confirmation" for the majority's finding.
The majority decision today, declaring that people who kill at age 16 or 17 cannot be executed, was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. It declared that prohibiting the execution of juvenile killers is a natural and logical conclusion to the court's 6-to-3 ruling in 2002 that executing mentally retarded offenders is categorically unconstitutional.
A 1988 Supreme Court decision barred execution of defendants who killed when they were younger than 16. But the court upheld capital punishment for 16- and 17-year-olds in a 1989 decision, when the lineup of justices was different. That decision was swept aside today.
"The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many reasons between childhood and adulthood," Justice Kennedy wrote, in an opinion joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. "It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."
The four dissenters - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor - bitterly disagreed.
"The court's decision today establishes a categorical rule forbidding the execution of any offender for any crime committed before his 18th birthday, no matter how deliberate, wanton, or cruel the offense," Justice O'Connor wrote. "Neither the objective evidence of contemporary societal values, nor the court's moral-proportionately analysis, nor the two in tandem suffice to justify this ruling."
While adolescents as a class are "undoubtedly less mature, and therefore less culpable" than adults, Justice O'Connor wrote, many state legislatures around the country had concluded that at least some juveniles were deserving of the ultimate penalty because of the depravity of their crimes.
Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, said the majority opinion had made "a mockery" of constitutional precedent and was based "on the flimsiest of grounds."
"The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards - and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures," Justice Scalia wrote.
Today's ruling in Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633, arose from a Missouri murder that even the majority on the court acknowledged as particularly heinous. In 1993, Christopher Simmons was a 17-year-old high school junior when he and two younger teenagers burglarized a house. Even if they were caught, Christopher Simmons told his friends, they could "get away with it" because they were minors, Justice Kennedy noted.
By coincidence, a woman inside the house recognized Mr. Simmons from a previous car crash involving both of them. As the defendant admitted later, her recognition convinced him to kill the woman, whom he abducted, bound and threw into a nearby creek to drown. He was arrested after bragging of the crime, convicted and sentenced to death after a jury recommended that punishment.
In August 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, deciding by 4 to 3 that subjecting a juvenile killer to execution was unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment" and resentencing Christopher Simmons to life in prison without parole.
The state of Missouri appealed (Donald P. Roper is the superintendent of the prison where Mr. Simmons is lodged), asserting that the state high court lacked the authority to reject the United States Supreme Court's 1989 finding that capital punishment for 16- and 17-year-olds was constitutional.
When the case was heard in October, lawyers for the defendant argued that new medical and psychological understanding of teenagers' immaturity validated the Missouri court's ruling. The United States Supreme Court upheld the state court today in overturning its own 1989 opinion.
"When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties," the majority held today, "but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity."
Justice Kennedy played a pivotal role in the ruling today in reversing his own stance from the 1989 ruling. In that case, Justice Kennedy voted with Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia, O'Connor and Byron R. White in permitting the execution of those who committed murder at 16.
In his opinion today, Justice Kennedy wrote, "In concluding that neither retribution nor deterrence provides adequate justification for imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders, we cannot deny or overlook the brutal crimes too many juvenile offenders have committed."
Even so, he wrote, juveniles by nature of their immaturity and unformed personalities cannot be included among those offenders who commit "a narrow category of the most serious crimes" for which the death penalty is appropriate.
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said today's ruling will "bring the U.S. more in line with the human rights community."
"Juveniles are not the worst of the worst offenders," Mr. Dieter said. "They may have done terrible crimes, but as individuals they're not as developed or culpable. They need to be punished, but not with our worst punishment." The center is a nonprofit organization that studies, and opposes, capital punishment.
The European Union issued a statement applauding today's ruling. So did former President Jimmy Carter, who said, "With this ruling, the United States acknowledges the national trend against juvenile capital punishment and joins the community of nations, which uniformly renounces this practice."