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
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