Since 1973, 228 people under the age of 18 have been sentenced
to the death penalty, and this month there are 72 juvenile
offenders in 12 states who are facing execution.
The United States is the only country in the world that still
sentences minors to death. Several other countries, such as China,
Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have executed juveniles in recent
years, but all have since renounced the practice.
The constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty came under
fire in the U.S. Supreme Court last week, as justices heard the
case Roper v. Simmons. Chris Simmons is a Missouri man convicted of
kidnapping and killing a woman in 1993 at the age of 17. The fates
of other juvenile inmates on death row, as well as the fate of the
juvenile death penalty itself, ride on the decision that should
come before the end of this year.
In connection with this landmark case, the University chapter of
the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday hosted a lecture by
Victor Streib, a Northern Ohio University law professor and expert
on the death penalty. Streib, who testified before the court last
week, has spent more than 20 years researching the death penalty
and its implications for juvenile offenders.
Previous Supreme Court decisions have set the minimum age for
the death penalty at 16. Streib said this age limit is ironic
because “juveniles are denied adult rights and
responsibilities throughout the law.”
“Underage (teens) can’t drive, vote, marry, contract
or play church bingo,” Streib said.
Six states which currently allow the juvenile death penalty have
argued that age does not determine moral culpability, or
responsibility under the law, saying in a court brief, “the
arbitrary age of 18 … does not define one’s character,
judgment, maturity, personal responsibility or moral
These states have also argued that cases should be examined on
an individual basis, and the court should not make blanket rulings
on all older teens.
In a separate brief filed in the case, Justice For All, a
pro-death penalty group based in Houston, Texas, said
“executing (Simmons) is not cruel and unusual punishment
because he specifically knew it was wrong to kill, understood the
consequences of his actions and nevertheless committed a horrific
Streib refuted these points, arguing that the Missouri case
against Simmons showed that the murder was an impulse, rather than
premeditated, murder. Streib said in almost all cases in which a
juvenile commits murder, it is based on impulse.
Another main argument used by pro-death penalty groups is that
the death penalty is a deterrent of crime — discouraging
potential young killers from killing because should they get
caught, they may face the death penalty.
In his lecture, Streib noted studies showing that adolescents
are more deterred by the prospect of “rotting in
prison” through life without parole than they are by the
death penalty. “Deterrance is also irrelevant to adolescents,
since they do not plan their actions or engage in cost-benefit
analyses,” Streib said.
Simmons was 17 when he was indicted and was consequently
convicted and sentenced to death. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled
in August 2003 to re-sentence Simmons to life without parole. The
court said that because Simmons was under 18, his execution would
violate the “evolving standards of decency,” which
defines cruel and unusual punishment by gauging the mood of
The Missouri state attorney then petitioned the U.S. Supreme
Court to hear the case.
Streib said along with the drop of juvenile death sentencing
— only two juveniles were sentenced in 2004 — the
actual number of juvenile executions has dropped from five in
1999-2000, to four in 2001-2002 and only one in 2003-2004.
“Prosecutors appear to be less willing to bring capital
charges in juvenile cases,” Streib said.
International law has also been called into question, as the
United States is the only country in the world where the death
penalty is legal for people under 18. While the Court is split on
whether to acknowledge international law as a factor for shaping
domestic constitutional standards, this argument will certainly be
a factor in the final decision, Streib said.
While Streib said it is “foolish to try to predict the
Court’s decisions,” he and other organizers of the
lecture anticipate a 6-3 decision in favor of Simmons to
effectively overthrow the juvenile death penalty. Many justices
have expressed opinions in the past on this issue, with Sandra Day
O’Connor representing an important swing vote that could sway
Although the death penalty has not been legal in Michigan since
1846, University students still feel strongly about the issue.
Bob Koch, a second-year law student, said, “It’s
easy to lose sight of the importance of this issue here at Michigan
since this state hasn’t executed somebody in over 100 years.
But this school produced national leaders, and in this country
reral juveniles face real execution, and that’s a real
problem that we have to face.