WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court yesterday struggled to
assess the morality and propriety of states executing murderers who
killed at age 16 or 17 — the ultimate punishment carried out
in few places outside the United States.
The court has outlawed executions for those 15 and under when
they committed their crimes. Still, 19 states allow the death
penalty for those older teenage killers.
Justices debated whether such killers are children who cannot
grasp the consequences of their actions and should be kept from
death row, or criminals whose executions would ensure justice for
victims and deter other youths.
The justices seemed sharply aware of the world audience as they
discussed whether the executions are cruel and unusual punishment
in violation of the Constitution.
They heard arguments in a Missouri case involving Christopher
Simmons, who at 17 kidnapped a neighbor and threw her off a
Juvenile offenders have been put to death in recent years in
just a few other countries, including Iran, Pakistan, China and
Saudi Arabia. All those countries have gone on record as opposing
capital punishment for minors.
“We are literally alone in the world,” said Seth
Waxman, Simmons’ lawyer.
Justices repeatedly referred to arguments filed on behalf of
Simmons by foreign leaders, Nobel Peace Prize winners and former
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate expected to be a key swing
vote, said with world opinion against the punishment, “Does
that have a bearing on what’s unusual?”
James Layton, representing the state of Missouri, said the
court’s judgment about unconstitutional punishment in America
“should not be based on what happens in the rest of the
“Is there some special reason why what happens abroad
would not be relevant here?” Justice Stephen Breyer
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoting from the Declaration of
Independence, said for the United States to lead, it must
“show a decent respect for the opinions of
Simmons was convicted of the 1993 murder of Shirley Crook.
Prosecutors say he planned the burglary and killing. The victim,
wearing only underwear and cowboy boots, was hog-tied and thrown
off a bridge.
Simmons was sentenced to die, but Missouri’s highest court
overturned the sentence last year.
Justice Antonin Scalia, a death penalty supporter, said the
court could be asked to declare juveniles too immature to face
punishment of any kind.
“Why pick on the death penalty? Why not say they’re
immune from any criminal penalty?” he asked. “I
don’t see where there’s a logical line.”
The case has drawn intense interest. People carrying sleeping
bags arrived at the Supreme Court before midnight in hopes of
getting a seat for the argument. It featured a lively debate that
touched on gang violence, global influence on America and
scientific evidence about the development of the teenage brain.
The Supreme Court increasingly has looked at international
opinion. The four most liberal members _ Ginsburg, Breyer, and
Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter _ have taken a stand
against the death penalty for minors, saying it is “a relic
of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency
in a civilized society.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, also an important swing vote,
spoke only once during the arguments. She pointed out that the
statistics about the use of executions for juveniles showed the
same consensus as existed two years ago against executing the
About 20 states allowed executions of retarded people when the
court voted 6-3 to outlaw them. Kennedy and O’Connor
supported the 2002 decision.
Kennedy seemed more conflicted by this case. He said he was
troubled about youth gang violence and the possibility of an
increase in teenage murderers if the court protected them from the
“If we rule against you, then the deterrent
remains,” he told Simmons’ lawyer.
Layton, who also was pressed on the subject, acknowledged there
is no conclusive evidence that minors are deterred by the fear of
the death penalty.
Death penalty supporters, including families of victims,
traveled to Washington to hear the landmark case.
“The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst.
It is not just for adults,” said Dianne Clements, president
of the victims’ rights group Justice For All. “It
doesn’t matter how old the killer is. What matters is that
your loved one is gone.”
Two court conservatives, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and
Scalia, said jurors should be allowed to consider evidence about a
teenager’s maturity and culpability.
Rehnquist appeared skeptical of scientific evidence that showed
juveniles are not as advanced as adults in impulse control and
But Breyer said even without that evidence “every parent
ought to know” that minors are still developing.