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Juvenile death penalty abolished

In a seminal 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court strikes down capital punishment for those who commit crimes under age 18.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2005


The US Supreme Court has struck down the juvenile death penalty, embracing a constitutional challenge that the nation's evolving standards of decency have rendered the practice cruel and unusual.

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In a landmark decision announced Tuesday, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that state laws authorizing capital punishment for 16- and 17-year-olds who commit murder violate the Eighth Amendment and are henceforth unconstitutional. The action reverses the death sentences of 72 convicted murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles.

Juvenile justice advocates hail the ruling as a major advance for American society. "This is a great day," says Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

"It confirms that America's standards of decency have indeed evolved and that children are different," says Stephen Harper, a professor of juvenile justice at the University of Miami.

The high court said a national consensus had emerged in opposition to the execution of juveniles. Dissenting justices said the fact that 20 states authorize the death penalty for juveniles is proof that no such consensus has emerged.

The ruling in a case called Roper v. Simmons means the death penalty still applies to anyone age 18 and older. But juries can no longer be asked to assess whether defendants who committed their crimes between ages 16 and 18 were mature and culpable enough at the time of the crime to warrant society's harshest punishment. Instead, teens who commit even the most heinous crimes will face a maximum punishment of life in prison.

"The differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability," writes Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.

"The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood," Justice Kennedy says. "It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."

Kennedy was joined in the majority opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

The rationale

The majority justices extended to the juvenile death penalty the same analysis used in a 2002 landmark ruling invalidating the death penalty for persons with mental retardation. The justices said youth, like a mental disability, can so reduce a criminal's blameworthiness or culpability as to require a constitutional bar against capital punishment.

"An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course," Kennedy writes, "even where the juvenile offender's objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death."

In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor criticizes the majority for usurping the role of state lawmakers and jurors in deciding the issue.