Supreme Court to consider ending execution of juveniles

The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider whether executing young killers violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, continuing the justices’ substantial review of death penalty practices in this country.

The high court already has eliminated executions of the mentally retarded, insisted that juries, not judges, impose death sentences, chastised lower courts for ignoring death penalty appeals and significantly raised standards for capital defense counsel.

Now the justices will take up the case of Missouri death row inmate Christopher Simmons, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994. Simmons was 17 years old when he tossed Shirley Crook off a railroad trestle into a river after a botched robbery a year earlier.

The Missouri Supreme Court overturned Simmons’ sentence, relying heavily on the high court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which outlawed executions of the mentally retarded. The “evolving standards of decency” the high court justices cited in that case should be extended to make executing young killers unconstitutional, the Missouri court wrote.

The Missouri decision was unusual in its attempt to apply a high court ruling to an area of law it didn’t address at all. Angry dissents on the Missouri bench said that only the U.S. Supreme Court was qualified to make that kind of leap.

Still, some experts say the Missouri decision was a reasonable follow-up to the court’s decision on executions of the mentally retarded.

“I think it’s very difficult to square the Atkins decision with the idea that it’s OK to execute juveniles,” said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a lecturer at Yale Law School. “It seems like the juvenile case should probably have been decided before the mental retardation case” from a logical standpoint, Bright said.

In 1989, the high court ruled it unconstitutional for states to put people to death for crimes they committed before they were 16, but the decision left open the possibility of executing 16- and 17-year-olds.

Since then, many states have eliminated juvenile executions, and the pace of juvenile capital convictions and executions in all death penalty cases has slowed appreciably.

The Supreme Court embarked on a serious review of death penalty practices in early 2002 and has restrained states from many aspects of capital punishment, but it stopped short of considering again whether it should be legal at all.

In late 2002, the high court rejected a second appeal of the Kentucky man who was the subject of its 1989 ruling on juvenile executions, prompting an angry dissent from four justices. Led by John Paul Stevens, the dissenting judges called the execution of juveniles “shameful” and a “relic.” Stevens has said he opposes executing young killers, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter have expressed a desire to have the court hear the issue.

Those four, considered the court’s more liberal justices, have been unable to coax a fifth vote out of the rest of the bench to get the issue before the high court.

Monday’s decision to consider Simmons’ case could be proof that another justice has come over to their thinking, out of respect for the change in societal attitudes about the death penalty. Or it could reflect a desire by one or more of the conservative justices to slap down the Missouri court’s attempt to extend the mental retardation ruling to other classes of capital defendants.