Executing Juveniles: Is It Cruel? ; the High Court Weighs Whether to Ban the Death Penalty for Anyone under 18

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

Executing Juveniles: Is It Cruel? ; the High Court Weighs Whether to Ban the Death Penalty for Anyone under 18


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


There are 72 individuals currently on death row for crimes committed as juveniles. Wednesday, the US Supreme Court takes up a Missouri death-penalty case that could invalidate every one of them.

At issue is whether the juvenile death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. More specifically, the high court must decide whether in light of "evolving standards of decency" in the US, a national consensus has emerged against the practice of executing those who are 16 and 17 years old at the time of their crime.

"This is a historic moment in the evolution of the Constitution," says Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

The case, Roper v. Simmons, is being closely watched by a wide array of child advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, medical and psychological associations, and international law experts, all urging the court to ban capital punishment for anyone under age 18. On the other side, Missouri prosecutors are backed by six states that filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief and a Texas victims' rights group supporting the death penalty.

Although the case before the high court involves a crime committed by a Missouri teen, a high-court ruling striking down the juvenile death penalty as unconstitutional would apply across the nation.

The death sentences for these 72 individuals represent a significant investment by state and local officials - and juries made up of ordinary Americans - seeking to mete out what they view as an appropriate level of punishment for the most heinous crimes.

But under the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, those interests must be balanced against contemporary national attitudes about the death penalty. "The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," wrote Earl Warren, then chief justice, in a 1958 decision.

The last time the Supreme Court examined whether a national consensus had emerged against the use of the death penalty for juvenile defendants was 1989. That same year, the court also examined whether a similar consensus existed against executing mentally retarded defendants. In both cases, the court ruled that a national consensus had not yet emerged.

But then, two years ago in a case called Atkins v. Virginia, the high court reversed its 1989 decision regarding mentally retarded capital defendants. The opinion noted that a growing number of states were passing laws barring the execution of the mentally retarded. It added that while mentally retarded individuals frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, their mental deficiencies reduce their level of blameworthiness.

Juvenile death-penalty opponents immediately saw the potential to apply the high court's holding in the Atkins case to win a similar ruling. If mental retardation made certain defendants less blameworthy and thus ineligible for the death penalty, these experts reasoned that similar characteristics of adolescent defendants might lead the court to the same conclusion.

The opportunity arose in the case of Christopher Simmons. He had been sentenced to death for tying up a woman while burglarizing her home and then dumping her - while still bound and alive - into a river. …

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