by Lawrence M. O'Rourke
March 02, 2005
By a 5-4 vote, the court said that American society has now reached a "consensus" that offenders who commit capital crimes while they are under 18 are "less culpable" because they often lack mature judgment.
The court said that the death penalty is a "disproportionate punishment for juveniles," just as it was for the mentally retarded, who were exempted from the death penalty in a Supreme Court ruling three years ago.
"From a moral viewpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character differences will be reformed," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
In a bow to world opinion, Kennedy said that the Supreme Court's "determination finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty."
In finding that putting to death those ages 15, 16 and 17 is a violation of the Constitution's ban against cruel and unusual punishment, the court reversed a 1989 decision that allowed the death penalty for those in this age bracket.
Joining Kenned in the majority were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The case involved Christopher Simmons, who was 17 years and five months old as a high school junior in Missouri in 1993 when he and another juvenile entered the home of neighbor Shirley Cook, trussed her with tape, kidnapped her and drove her in her minivan to a railroad trestle. Simmons and the other juvenile threw her bound into a river, where she drowned.
Simmons had previously talked to friends, the court said, "in chilling, callous terms" about how he intended to commit the crime, adding that "they could get away with it because they were minors."
The four dissenting justices disagreed that an anti-death penalty consensus exists in the United States, or that it should determine the high court's decision.
The dissenters were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
O'Connor wrote that the majority was actually relying on "its independent moral judgment that death is a disproportionately severe punishment for any 17-year-old offender."
While declaring that adolescents are undoubtedly less mature and therefore less culpable for their misconduct," she said that "at least some" 17-year-olds are "sufficiently mature to deserve the death penalty in an appropriate case."
O'Connor declared that "the fact that juveniles are generally less culpable for their misconduct than adults does not necessarily mean that a 17-year-old murderer cannot be sufficiently culpable to warrant the death penalty."
Kennedy's opinion was striking in its reference to world opinion against the death penalty. The European Union, a group of Nobel Prize winners and British human rights activists urged in a friend-of-the-court brief that the United States join most Western nations in abolishing the death penalty, especially for juveniles.
Scalia said in a dissent joined by Rehnquist and Thomas that the court's majority "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."
He said that juries should have been allowed to weigh a convicted murderer's age when deciding if the death penalty was the warranted punishment.
In finding that a national consensus against the death penalty for those under 18 has been formed, the court pointed out that in 1989 there was no agreement among states on capital punishment for juveniles.
Now most states have barred the execution of juveniles, while 19 states still allow it. The court said that this trend reflects reflected a national belief that executions of juvenile offenders violate the "civilized standards of decency."
Pointing to the growing reluctance of states to allow the death penalty for juveniles, the court noted that only six states have executed under-18 offenders in the last 16 years.
Legal analysts said that the major impact of the Supreme Court's ruling will be felt in Texas, where there are 29 juvenile offenders on death row. Alabama has 14 juveniles sentenced to death.