The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to ban capital punishment for homicides committed by individuals younger than 18 earlier this month. In Roper v. Simmons, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision to overturn the previous precedent, established in Stanford v. Kentucky, based on a growing moral consensus in the U.S. and abroad against the execution of juvenile criminals. This ruling, along with the ban against the execution of the mentally retarded in the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, will hopefully be used to galvanize opposition to capital punishment on the whole.
The Roper decision immediately serves to remove more than 70 inmates throughout the country from death row. The state most clearly impacted by the decision is Texas, where 28 individuals were set to face death by lethal injection for crimes committed when they were 17. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has already released a statement indicating that the 28 death sentences will all be converted to life in prison terms, and he will push for state legislation to enforce the recent decision. The compliance of governors, such as Perry, as well other U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the scope of the death penalty has led many in the legal field to believe that legality of the death penalty in America has run its course.
Until the Supreme Court’s decision, the U.S. was one of five countries worldwide — including such notorious human rights violators as China and Iran — to allow the execution of juvenile offenders. Execution as a punishment for crimes committed while under 18 is quite rare worldwide, having happened only 21 times since 2000 according to Amnesty International. Disturbingly, 13 of these executions were in the U.S.
The five votes of affirmation show that the current court is more inclined to base decisions on today’s evolving standards of morality rather than by relying on judicial philosophies such as originalism, which requires the Constitution to be interpreted according to the standards of the time in which it was written. If the balance of the Supreme Court remains tilted in this manner, it can be hoped that similar capital punishment decisions will follow.
Even if a majority of the states continue to support the death penalty, the majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons, issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy, could be similarly applied to the issue of capital punishment on the whole.
With the exception of states such as Texas and certain nations, such as Saudi Arabia, the rarity with which capital punishment is used throughout the world should show that there is an overwhelming consensus against the death penalty developing internationally. The rarity with which the death penalty is used could finally allow capital punishment to be by definition an unusual response to crimes and thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on the use of cruel and unusual punishment.
Though the United States prides itself on being a global leader, it has yet to follow the global move away from capital punishment as an acceptable response to murder. Government-sanctioned killings of individuals, who ever they are, is morally unacceptable. Our nation would do well to recall Gandhi’s adage — an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.