Supreme Court to Decide Issue of Juvenile Executions
10/15/2004 11:20 AM
Currently being played out before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Roper v. Simmons is the issue of juvenile execution. The case revolves around Christopher Simmons, who has been sentenced to die in Missouri for his part in the 1993 kidnapping and murder of Shirley Crook. Simmons was only seventeen years old at the time of the crime.
Eighteen years has long been thought to be the age of majority or adulthood in the United States. The Justices must decide if executing an individual under the age of eighteen violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Supporters of the juvenile death penalty cite deterrence and the heinous nature of the murders committed in cases where the death penalty is sought as reasons to maintain the status quo. Opponents cite scientific studies which show that juveniles' brains are underdeveloped and immature, particularly in the areas of the brain which control reason, decision-making, and impulse control. In addition, they point to the fact that 31 states bar the death penalty for juveniles, while only 19 states currently allow it (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas, and Virginia).
Additionally,when rendering their decisions, courts are increasingly considering the weight of international opinion and international law. The international consensus is strongly opposed to the practice of juvenile executions. This point was made clear when Justice John Paul Stevens asked, during oral arguments, if the court should ignore the fact that America's global respect is on the line over the issue of juvenile executions. Justice Anthony Kennedy also mused earlier on in the arguments that the "world opinion is against us" in regards to juveniles and the death penalty. It seems clear that international pressures could likely play a significant role in the outcome of this case.
The Supreme Court itself is deeply divided on the issue and the decision is anything but certain. The three most conservative members of the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas are expected to uphold the decision to execute juveniles. On the other hand, the more liberal Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, and Stephen Breyer have voiced their distain for the "shameful" practice. Moderate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy hold the key swing votes which will ultimately decide the issue for the American public.
Compiled from: Law.com, High Court Hears Arguments on Executing Juveniles, by Tony Mauro, October14, 2004, and CNN.com, Court Divided Over Teen Executions, October 13, 2004