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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"The rule decreed by the court rests, ultimately, on its independent moral judgment that death is a disproportionately severe punishment for any 17-year-old offender," Justice O'Connor writes. "I do not subscribe to this judgment. Adolescents as a class are undoubtedly less mature, and therefore less culpable for their misconduct, than adults," she says. "But the court has adduced no evidence impeaching the seemingly reasonable conclusion reached by many state legislatures: that at least some 17-year-old murderers are sufficiently mature to deserve the death penalty."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The decision stems from a Missouri murder case involving a teen sentenced to death for tying up a woman while burglarizing her home. He then dumped her - still bound and alive - into a river. Christopher Simmons was 17 at the time of the crime.
While planning the burglary and murder, Mr. Simmons told his friends that even if he was caught, nothing would happen to him because he was a juvenile.
The Missouri Supreme Court struck down Simmons's death sentence, citing a 2002 decision by the US Supreme Court barring execution of the mentally retarded. The Missouri high court applied the ruling in the context of a juvenile death-penalty case, even though the US Supreme Court itself had not yet extended its 2002 ruling to juveniles.
In taking up the Missouri case, the Supreme Court agreed to explore two questions. First, can a lower court like the Missouri Supreme Court extend US Supreme Court precedents into new areas prior to the high court itself doing so?
Second, the justices agreed to examine whether a national consensus has emerged that the juvenile death penalty is a form of cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.
Kennedy did not address the Missouri Supreme Court's actions in his opinion. In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia raised the issue, saying the Missouri high court had engaged in a "flagrant disregard" of Supreme Court precedent by applying the court's analysis in the 2002 case to the juvenile death-penalty case before the high court itself had done so.
"Allowing lower courts to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment whenever they decide enough time has passed for a new snapshot leaves this court's decisions without any force," Justice Scalia writes.
He also criticized the majority opinion for including references to international opposition to the juvenile death penalty.
"Only seven countries other than the United States have executed juvenile offenders since 1990," Kennedy writes. "Since then each of these countries has either abolished capital punishment for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice."
Anticipating criticism, Kennedy adds, "The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions."
Scalia was undeterred in his dissent. "To invoke alien law when it agrees with one's own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, is not reasoned decisionmaking, but sophistry," he says.
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this story.