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Supreme Court Bars Death Penalty for Juvenile Killers

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 wide 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

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

"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

"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."