The Right Decision on the Juvenile Death Penalty

By Bradley, Craig M. | Judicature, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Right Decision on the Juvenile Death Penalty


Bradley, Craig M., Judicature


The Court correctly held that because of the unfinished nature of juveniles' personalities, they can never be classified among those defendants who are depraved enough to be sentenced to death.

In Roper v. Simmons,1 the Supreme Court reversed a 1989 precedent2 and struck down the death penalty for crimes committed by people under age 18. Although the Court's claim that standards of decency have evolved significantly in that period is less than compelling, the result seems right.

The majority reached its conclusion in the face of a heinous murder, but that is probably because it takes a particularly compelling case for a jury to sentence ajuvenile to death. When Christopher Simmons was 17, he started talking about wanting to murder someone. On several occasions he discussed a plan-to commit a burglary, then tie up the victim and push him or her from a bridge-with his friends. He said they could "get away with it" because they were minors.3

Following this plan, he and a younger friend broke into the home of Shirley Crook. They bound and blindfolded her with duct tape and drove her to a state park. There they walked her to a railroad trestle, tied her hands and feet with electrical wire, covered her whole face with duct tape, and threw her into the river, where she drowned.

Because Simmons later bragged about the murder, the crime was not difficult to solve. Once in custody, he confessed and performed a videotaped reenactment of the crime.4 As a consequence, the guilt phase of the trial in Missouri state court was uncontested.

At the penalty phase, both sides brought up Simmons's age-the defense attorney arguing that he should not receive an adult sentence (meaning death) because he was not old enough to drink, serve on juries, or even see certain movies, and the prosecutor suggesting that his youthfulness made him all the more "scary."5

After Simmons's conviction was affirmed on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia6 that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment proscribes execution of the mentally retarded because "mental retardation ... diminishes personal culpability even if the offender can distinguish right from wrong."7

Simmons then petitioned for post-conviction relief, and Missouri's high court reversed his death sentence, concluding that Atkins suggested that the Eighth Amendment also prohibited the execution of juveniles.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, began its analysis by saying it has long held that "evolving standards of decency" govern the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.8 The Court recognized that in 1989, in Stanford v. Kentucky? it had upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds after having struck it down the previous year for those under 16."'

But the Court also upheld the death penalty for the retarded11 in 1989 and then reversed that decision in Atkins. The question became whether-either because of statistics or a similarity in the moral issues involved in executing retarded and juvenile offenders-Stanford should also be reversed.

Beginning with the statistics, the Court noted that the same number of states-30-currently prohibit juvenile executions as had prohibited mentally disabled executions before Atkins. This includes the 12 states that prohibit the death penalty altogether. Moreover, only three states had actually executed a juvenile in the last 10 years.12

But in an illustration of former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's maxim that there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics," the dissenters pointed out that there were "currently over 70 juvenile offenders on death row in 12 different states (13 including the respondent)"13 and that the 18 death penalty states that forbid execution of juveniles constitute only 47 percent of states that allow the death penalty.14 "Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of the death penalty states can constitute a national consensus," Justice Antonin Scalia averred. …

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