Teens on Death Row

Almost a year ago, the US Supreme Court announced it would re-examine the constitutionality of the death penalty for teens (juvenile defendants under 18 years of age at the time of the crime).

The case that the US Supreme Court is now considering is 03-633 Roper v. Simmons. Donald P. Roper is the superintendent of the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri. Christopher Simmons is the young man who, in 1993, when he was 17, threw the bound Shirley Crook off a railroad trestle and into a river.

Simmons received a May 1, 2002 execution date, having been convicted of murdering Mrs. Crook. However the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in August 2003 that the execution of those who committed crimes while under the age of 18 violates evolving standards of decency and is, therefore, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. Simmons death sentence was vacated.

But will the US Supreme Court agree and stop the execution of juveniles under 18?

A quarter century ago, the US Supreme Court called the death penalty laws “arbitrary and capricious.” On June 29, 1972, the court ruled the death penalty itself unconstitutional because, in some cases, the laws violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

While waiting for the 1972 Supreme Court ruling, the states adopted a moratorium and many states decided against the death penalty. However, others reformed their death penalty laws, providing a separation between the decision for guilt or innocence and the sentencing.

And in July of 1976, the Court again allowed the death penalty.

But many of the states (12) saw the injustice of the death penalty and still more (31) saw the particular injustice of the death penalty for juveniles. Still more (43) have not executed juveniles since 1976.

The Supreme Court has received some 18 Briefs Amicus Curiae advocating the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles. They came from a wide range of petitioners, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the European Union and members of the International Community, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, former president James Carter, Jr., former US diplomats, the American Psychological Association and many others.

Why did the American Psychological Association stand up for Christopher Simmons and the vacating of the death penalty for juveniles?

In June 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled (in Atkins v. Virginia) that the death penalty for offenders with mental retardation is cruel and unusual punishment. A year later, the Missouri Supreme Court adopted the same position on offenders under the age of 18.

This doesn't mean that the Missouri court believes that juveniles suffer from mental retardation. But the court apparently believes the scientists who are saying that juveniles do not have the same impulse control, decision-making and reasoning as adults.

Neuroscientist Ruben Gur, director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, says that the part of the brain which restrains impulsive behavior, the frontal lobe, doesn't even begin to mature until 17 years of age. Other researchers say the brain is still maturing at 17 and beyond age 21. A great deal of research points to the immaturity of youthful brains.

Actually, the fact that juveniles are different from adults was recognized as far back as 1869 when the first juvenile court was created in Chicago.

The movement spread and most cities have special treatment for juvenile offenders. But lately, juveniles who are judged to have committed adult crimes wind up in adult courts and are exposed to the death penalty.

Where do you draw the line?

At what age do the standards of decency, which Amnesty International promote, permit execution? Is executing a 17-year-old juvenile indecent but executing a less-than-21-year-old minor in good taste?

Or, perhaps, it's the execution itself that doesn't match the standards of decency.

The United States leads the world in execution of juvenile offenders since 1990, and execution of teens is a stain on America. That's because the United States is almost unique in its execution of juvenile offenders.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says the sentence of death should not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age.

The United States has joined the covenant with one restriction, the United States insisted on its right to continue its practice of juvenile executions.

Then there's the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It states that offenses committed by persons below 18 years of age shall not be punished by either capital punishment or life imprisonment without possibility of release. Almost every country in the world has ratified this treaty. The United States has not.

In both cases, the Covenant and the Convention, the United States is in a unique position. Our states have rights, too. And unless the states, all of them, or the federal government, agree to abolish juvenile execution, our government can't really be part of the International Covenant on Civil Crimes and Political Rights or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There is a solution. Thirty-one states decided against the death penalty for juveniles and 12 have no death penalty. That makes 43 states that are against the execution of juveniles, or that have not recently executed juveniles, versus the six states which currently continue the practice (Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma, although it does not currently have any juveniles on death row).

That's a clear majority of states which have agreed with the world that such executions are a violation of the evolving standards of decency.

The United States Supreme Court is expected to come to a decision on Roper v. Simmons this spring. We can only guess whether a majority of the justices of the US Supreme Court will agree with a majority of the states and the rest of the world.

Chelle Delaney is the associate editor of the St. Augustine Catholic magazine for the Diocese of Saint Augustine in Florida.

This article was adapted from one that previously appeared in the St. Augustine Catholic, and is used by permission.

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