- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to consider whether a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibits the execution of murderers convicted of crimes committed before their 18th birthday.

The high court agreed, without comment, to hear the case of Christopher Simmons, a Missouri man convicted 10 years ago — when he was 17 — in the death of a 46-year-old woman abducted from her home during a burglary, hogtied with electrical wire and duct tape, and thrown off a railroad trestle.

After several appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court last year ruled that it was unconstitutional to send people to their deaths for killings committed when they were younger than 18. The 4-3 decision by the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered Simmons to life in prison instead.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Missouri law properly allows the execution of 16- and 17-year-old killers and that it is an option that “should remain there for Missouri juries.” Missouri has executed only one minor since 1937.

Missouri authorities said Simmons described to his friends how he planned to commit the crime and assured them that their status as juveniles would allow them to “get away with it.”

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade executions for those who had killed at age 15 or younger. A year later, the high court ruled 5-4 that killers who were 16 and 17 could be put to death. In a separate decision, it allowed the execution of people with mental disabilities.

Last year, the nation’s high court forbade executing people with mental disabilities, citing “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

There are 83 juveniles currently on death rows nationwide, nearly half of whom are being held in Texas and Alabama. The states have executed 22 persons younger than 18 since 1973, including 13 in Texas, 3 in Virginia, 2 in Oklahoma and 1 each in Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and South Carolina.

Lee Boyd Malvo was sentenced to life in prison after his conviction in Virginia for one of the sniper killings in the Washington area, but he faces additional trials and possible death-penalty sentences for crimes committed when he was 17.

In the pending Missouri case, Simmons and a co-defendant, Charlie Benjamin, then 15, were convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of Shirley Crook, who was tossed to her death off the trestle after being held captive for more than an hour.

Missouri authorities said Simmons and Benjamin broke into Mrs. Crook’s home through a rear door, ordering the woman out of her bed and then binding her hands behind her back with duct tape. The teenagers then taped her eyes and mouth shut, they said, adding that Mrs. Crook then was forced into the back of her minivan and driven to a remote trestle that spanned the Meramec River about an hour away.

They said Simmons and Benjamin discovered that Mrs. Crook had freed her hands and removed some of the duct tape from her face. Using her purse strap, the belt from her bathrobe, a towel from the back of the van and some electrical wire found on the trestle, they said the teenagers retied her hands and feet and covered her head with the towel before Simmons pushed her into the river below.

Benjamin was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the murder.

The high court is expected to hear arguments in the Simmons case beginning in October.

In a December 2002 dissent, four Supreme Court justices called the execution of minors younger than 18 “a relic of the past … inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.” The four were John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Ford; David H. Souter, named to the bench by the first President Bush; and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, both of whom were nominated by President Clinton.

Twelve states forbid the death penalty outright; 11 states, including Virginia, set 16 and older as the age requirement for the death penalty; five states have an age requirement of 17; and 14 states, including Maryland, set 18 and older as the death-penalty age requirement. Eight states have no age regulation.

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