Court Strikes Down Death Penalty for Juveniles

In 5-4 Decision, Majority Cites ‘Evolving Standards,’ Brain Research

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders, saying that both a national consensus and research on the adolescent brain make it “misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult.”

The 5-4 decision on March 1 overturned a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of executing those who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes.

“A greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in the majority opinion. Twenty-two people who were juveniles at the time of their crimes have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. The ruling will commute the death sentences of 72 people.

The decision came in the appeal of a Missouri death sentence against Christopher Simmons, who was convicted of throwing a woman, bound and gagged, into a river after burglarizing her home in 1993. Mr. Simmons, a 17-year-old high school junior at the time of the offense, had assured his friends they would be able to “get away” with the burglary and murder because they were juveniles, according to court papers.

Justice Kennedy described two foundations for the ruling in Roper v. Simmons.

Many states have already decided not to subject juvenile offenders to the death penalty, he noted. The high court took such “evolving standards of decency” into consideration when it struck down the death penalty for offenders with mental retardation in the case of Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.Eighteen states with the death penalty do not allow that punishment for juveniles; 12 states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty at all, Justice Kennedy pointed out.

Justice Kennedy then turned to research to reinforce the court’s view that juvenile offenders are immature and more susceptible than adults to negative influences and outside pressure.

“Once the diminished culpability of juveniles is recognized, it is evident that the penological justifications for the death penalty apply to them with lesser force than to adults,” he wrote.

The ruling also noted that the United States “is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty,” Justice Kennedy wrote. He was joined in the majority by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Fundamentally Different

Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the majority’s finding of a national consensus was made “on the flimsiest of grounds.” In an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Scalia said the idea that American law must conform to international legal norms should be rejected.

“To invoke alien law when it agrees with one’s own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, is not reasoned decisionmaking, but sophistry,” Justice Scalia wrote.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote her own dissenting opinion, saying that no national consensus exists on the issue.

Vol. 24, Issue 26, Page 26

Published in Print: March 9, 2005, as Court Strikes Down Death Penalty for Juveniles
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