U.S. Supreme Court: Death penalty for juveniles is unconstitutional

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Tuesday, March 1, 2005

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled today, in Roper v. Simmons, that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on those who committed crimes while juveniles. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion to overturn the death penalty for juveniles, which was also supported by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing a separate dissent.

Christopher Simmons received the death sentence for brutally kidnapping and murdering Shirley Crook as part of a burglary. The case worked its way up the court system, with the courts continuing to uphold the death sentence. However, in light of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Atkins v. Virginia, that overturned the death penalty for the mentally retarded, the Missouri Supreme Court reconsidered Mr. Simmon's case. It concluded that "a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders" and sentenced Mr. Simmons to life imprisonment without parole.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where it was argued on October 13, 2004. The constitutionality of capital punishment for juveniles was put into question, citing the Eighth Amendment that protects individuals from cruel and unusual punishment.

Previously, a 1988 Supreme Court decision Thompson v. Oklahoma barred execution of offenders under the age of 16. In 1989 Stanford v. Kentucky brought into question the constitutionality of execution for those under age 18. At the time the Supreme Court upheld the possibility of capital punishment for offenders who are 16 or 17 years old when they committed the capital offense. The same day in 1989 the Supreme Court ruled it was permissible to execute the mentally retarded in Penry v. Lynaugh. However, in 2003, the decision was reconsidered in Atkins v. Virginia citing that decency standards had evolved and execution of the mentally retarded was now considered to be cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional.

Roper v. Simmons brought the age issue to the table again. In question is whether it is Constitutionally permissible to execute an offender who committed a capital crime while under the age of 18. As in the issue of executing the mentally retarded, the Supreme Court has now decided that society’s standards have evolved since the 1989 case and that it is indeed cruel and unusual punishment to execute a juvenile, under age 18.

Supporting this ‘’evolving standard’’, is the body of scientific and sociological research1 that finds juveniles have a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility, compared to adults. Adolescents are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior. In recognition of the comparative immaturity and irresponsibility of juveniles, almost every State prohibits those under age 18 from voting, serving on juries, or marrying without parental consent. Juveniles are also more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. They have less control, or experience with control, over their own environment. They also lack the freedom that adults have, in escaping a criminogenic setting.

Another key basis to support the “national consensus” on the death penalty for juveniles, is the increasing infrequency that it is applied at the state level. While 20 states have the juvenile death penalty on the books, only six states have executed prisoners for crimes committed as juveniles, since 1989. And, just three states have done so in the past 10 years: Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. Furthermore, five of the states that allowed the juvenile death penalty at the time of the 1989 case have since abolished it. Thus, the execution of juveniles is indeed becoming increasingly unusual in the United States and a “national consensus” has developed.

In evaluating whether penalties violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court has taken guidance from the law of foreign countries and international bodies. Since 1990, only seven other countries – Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China – have executed juveniles. Since then, however, each of those seven countries has either abolished the death penalty for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice. Now, one finds the stark reality that the United States stand alone, as the only country in the world that continues to allow execution of juveniles. Furthermore, only the United States and Somalia have yet to ratify Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (September 2, 1990), expressly prohibits capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles.

In drawing the line at 18 years of age for death eligibility, the Supreme Court considered that is also where society draws the line between childhood and adulthood for a multitude of other purposes.

Both the Scalia dissent, joined by Rehnquist and Thomas, and Justice O’Connor’s separate dissent put into question whether a “national consensus” had indeed formed among the state laws. In addition, Scalia also objects to taking guidance from foreighn law in interpreting the Constitution.

Implications of this ruling, are particularly felt in the State of Virginia, where it is now most certain that Lee Boyd Malvo will not face the death penalty. He is responsible in-part, along with John Allen Muhammad, for the DC Sniper Attacks that terrorized the Washington, DC area in October 2002. He had already been spared the death penalty in his first trial, for the murder of FBI employee, Linda Franklin, outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Virginia. However, Mr. Malvo is also set to face trial in Prince William County, Virginia for another murder, and yet to face trial in Louisiana and elsewhere for other killings. In light of today's Supreme Court decision, the prosecutors in Prince William County may not pursue the charges against Mr. Malvo, after all. The primary reason for extraditing these two suspects from Maryland, where they were arrested, to Virginia, was in fact the differences in how the two states deal with the death penalty. While the death penalty is allowed in Maryland, it is only applied to adults, whereas Virginia had also allowed the death penalty for juvenile offenders.



Note 1: While the Supreme Court did not cite specific research studies, their arguments are well-grounded in the substantial body of scientific and sociological research that recognizes the mental/developmental differences between adults and adolescents. In fact, neither the majority nor dissenting opinions put the research into question. The references listed below go into great detail about these differences, the development of the human mind, and it’s capacity for judgment which might not fully mature until the age of 25.

  • Cauffman, Elizabeth and Laurence Steinberg. (2000). (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults Behavioral Sciences and the Law 18, 741-760.
  • Scott, Elizabeth S. and Thomas Grisso. (1997). Evolution of Adolescence: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice Reform Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88(1), 137-189.