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High court: Juvenile death penalty unconstitutional

Slim majority cites 'evolving standards' in American society

Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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Death penalty for juveniles struck down
Supreme Court
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Crime, Law and Justice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a ruling that marked a change in "national standards," a divided Supreme Court Tuesday ruled that the execution of juvenile killers is unconstitutional.

The 5-4 decision tosses out the death sentence of a Missouri man who was 17-years-old when he murdered a St. Louis area woman in 1993.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy found the punishment was unconstitutionally cruel under the Eighth Amendment.

"When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity."

Supporting Kennedy were justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

The ruling means the death sentences of some 70 death row inmates who were under 18 at the time of their crimes will be invalid. States in the future will not be allowed to seek the death penalty for minors.

The high court in 1989 ruled the execution of 16- and 17-year old killers was allowable, but the issue in the current case was whether "evolving national standards" had prompted a new look at the divisive issue.

In a sharp dissent delivered from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed that argument as "no way to run a legal system."

"We must disregard the new reality that -- to the extent our Eighth Amendment decisions constitute something more than a show of hands on the current Justices' personal views (on the death penalty) -- they purport to be nothing more than a snapshot of American public opinion at a particular point in time," he wrote.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in the dissent.

Joshua Marquis, a Eugene, Oregon, district attorney and board member of the National District Attorneys Association, does not believe the ruling is a death knell for capital punishment.

"I am not surprised," he said. "This is simply a further refinement in what I believe is a trend of the court and prosecutors and jurors becoming more discriminating about when the death penalty should be imposed."

The Supreme Court cited "evolving standards" two years ago when it ruled unconstitutional the execution of the mentally retarded. Daryl Renard Atkins was spared death following his conviction of a 1996 murder. In court records, his IQ was listed as 59.

A few months after the Atkins ruling, four justices issued an extraordinary condemnation of executing juvenile killers, calling the practice "shameful."

Carter, EU praise decision

In the high court's last visit to the issue -- 1989 -- the justices also cast a 5-4 vote, this time upholding the death sentence of a Kentucky youth who was 16 when he committed murder.

Since that time, opinion -- and the court -- has begun to shift away from the death penalty, particularly when those convicted of a capital crime can be seen as less than mature in their reasoning.

Former President Jimmy Carter, one of 15 Nobel laureates who signed a brief in support of Simmons, issued a statement praising the decision, as did the European Union, which also submitted a brief.

"The Supreme Court decision confirms recent, compelling scientific research findings, that the capacity for curbing impulsiveness, using sound judgment, and exercising self-control is much less developed in adolescents than in adults," he wrote.

"The European Union welcomes the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court has held that the execution of juvenile offenders is 'cruel and unusual punishment' prohibited by the Eighth

Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the EU's presidency in Luxembourg wrote.

Six states supported Missouri

The case -- Roper v. Simmons (03-0633) -- involved the arrest and conviction of Christopher Simmons for the 1993 murder of a neighbor, Shirley Crook, in St. Louis County, Missouri. Her home was broken into, and she was later found in the Meramec River, her hands tied with electric cable, leather straps and duct tape.

A jury concluded Simmons and a 14-year-old accomplice had shoved Crook off a railroad trestle while she was alive. The robbery netted six dollars.

Simmons' guilt was never in doubt, but the state's supreme court last year overturned the conviction, concluding "a national consensus has developed against execution of juvenile offenders." The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear an appeal from Missouri officials.

Simmons' lawyers argued in court filings that he suffered as a youth from a variety of physical beatings and psychological abuse.

Missouri's attorney general, in a filing with the court, said overturning Simmons' death sentence "would sow inequity and wreak havoc throughout the justice system."

Officials from six states-- Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Alabama and Delaware -- filed a separate brief supporting Missouri.

Nineteen states still have laws allowing the execution of those 16- or 17-years old at the time of their crimes, though many of the states have not used it in recent years to prosecute juvenile offenders.

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