- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The Supreme Court yesterday declared by a 5-4 margin that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on convicts who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

Ruling that capital punishment for minors violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the court reversed its 1980 decision that allowed executions of convicts who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the majority decision and was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

“The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. “It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest.”

The ruling will affect the lives of 72 men awaiting execution in the nation’s prisons. Some of them, now in their 40s, were convicted decades ago and may spend the rest of their lives in prison instead of dying by capital punishment.

There are 3,455 prisoners on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Twenty-two who were juveniles at the time of their crimes have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

In two dissenting opinions yesterday, Justices O’Connor and Scalia criticized the majority’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment. “I would demand a clearer showing that our society truly has set its face against this practice before reading the Eighth Amendment as categorically to forbid it,” Justice O’Connor wrote.

Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, wrote: “It is entirely consistent to believe that young people often act impetuously and lack judgment, but at the same time, to believe that those who commit premeditated murder are — at least sometimes — just as culpable as adults.”

The opinions came in the Missouri case of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 in 1993 when he and 15-year-old Charles Benjamin kidnapped and bound Shirley Crook in her home near St. Louis.

Court papers show the two put Mrs. Crook in her minivan and drove her to a bridge over the Meramac River, where they covered her face in duct tape and threw her from the bridge, drowning her in the waters below.

Prosecutors, who charged Simmons as an adult in the case, said he had bragged to friends that they could “get away with it” because they were minors. Simmons was sentenced to death by a state court, but the sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court of Missouri.

Seeking a review of the ruling, Missouri officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said yesterday that “we respect the decision” of the U.S. Supreme Court.

He noted that Simmons was the only Missouri death row inmate whose crime was committed as a minor. “There has never been any question about [Simmons’] guilt in the murder of Shirley Crook,” Mr. Nixon said. “This decision confirms he will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Benjamin was protected from the death penalty because of his age at the time of the crime.

The ruling yesterday continued a recent trend of the Supreme Court citing international concerns, with Justice Kennedy noting the “stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty.”

Among those who supported Simmons were a coalition of 16 Nobel Peace Prize winners, including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former President Jimmy Carter.

Some death penalty foes said they were not surprised by the ruling, which comes after a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that blocked executions of mentally retarded people under the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. In that ruling, Justice O’Conner had joined the majority.

Marsha Levick, the legal director and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said that after the 2002 ruling, “there really was not a principled distinction between juveniles and the mentally retarded, as far as their eligibility for the death penalty.”

Supporters of the death penalty said the Simmons ruling will weaken the U.S. justice system. Virginia-based Law Enforcement Alliance of America called the ruling an “abomination of justice.”

“The trial courts and the jury should have the right to examine each case individually and decide based on the facts involved, not just a number,” said Kevin H. Watson, a spokesman for the organization.

More than 50 of the 72 affected men were 17 when they committed their crimes, he added. The Simmons ruling “really says, it’s not OK when they’re 17, but eight or nine months later, it’s OK when they’re 18,” Mr. Watson said. “That is a bright line standard that doesn’t make sense.”

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