U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether It's wrong to execute juveniles

By: Mike Stark

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Christopher Simmons, a Missouri death row inmate who was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed. The justices will rule whether it was proper for the Missouri State Court of Appeals to declare that juvenile executions are unconstitutional.

Legal experts expect the Supreme Court’s decision will temporarily halt all juvenile executions in the U.S. The court is not expected to hear the case until sometime next year. But Texas officials plan to ignore the Supreme Court and press ahead with the execution of four juvenile defendants between March and June of this year.

In the Missouri court’s decision, the judges cited the Supreme Court’s rationale in their decision to ban the execution of the mentally retarded two years ago. In that decision, the Supreme Court cited the national trend toward banning executions of mentally retarded individuals as evidence that the evolving standard of what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" had developed to the point that the practice should be outlawed.

The last time that the Supreme Court looked at the issue of juvenile executions was in 1988, when the court made its infamous Stanford v. Kentucky decision. At that time, the justices ruled that it was permissible to execute individuals as young as 16 years old. Since then, five states have moved to outlaw the practice. A 2002 Gallup poll indicated that 69 percent of Americans oppose the execution of juveniles.

Also, medical science indicates that teenagers don’t just act differently from adults--they are different. Studies conducted by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and UCLA’s Department of Neuroscience show that the parts of the brain that govern judgment, reasoning and impulse control are developing into a person’s early twenties.

Currently, only 22 states allow juvenile executions. Twenty-two juvenile offenders have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976--with Texas accounting for 13 of these cases. There are currently an estimated 72 juvenile offenders on death row in the U.S.

Further evidence of how the practice of executing juveniles is losing support among Americans is the outcome of the recent trial of Washington-area sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo. A Virginia jury declined to sentence him to death, instead sentencing him to life without parole.

What makes this more incredible is the more than $1 million spent by the government to prosecute Malvo. The fact that prosecutors could not get a death sentence despite the media onslaught is indicative of an important shift in people’s thinking about sending youth to their death.

As Steven Benjamin, a Virginia defense attorney who closely tracks death penalty issues said recently, "[I]f you consider Malvo to be as bad as they come--someone who deliberately and in cold blood committed these series of random killings--and even this person is not sentenced to death by a Virginia jury, then surely this is the best proof you could ever have that society no longer accepts the premise that adolescents should be sentenced to death."

The U.S. is virtually alone in the world in the practice of executing juvenile offenders. The only other country that still admits to the practice is Iran. According to the American Bar Association, seven international treaties prohibit the practice of executing children, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held that the U.S. is violating international law by continuing the practice.

While it is impossible to know what the Supreme Court will do, it is clear that the justices are under some pressure to reform the U.S.’s barbaric death penalty system. Abolitionists should keep the pressure on to ensure that the Supreme Court does the right thing.