International House of Dan: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Execution of Minors

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

U.S. Supreme Court Bans Execution of Minors

In an uplifting 5-4 decision earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the execution of persons for crimes they committed at the ages of 16 and 17 violates the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. had executed 19 of the 39 minors executed since 1990, the remaining 20 having been in China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Amnesty International points out that these seven countries have all since repudiated or abandoned the practice, in accordance with their obligations under Article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, unlike only the U.S. and Somalia, they have all ratified.

I am especially pleased that it was the Simmons case that decided the matter, because the murder involved was particularly cruel. In 1993, 17 year old Christopher Simmons broke into the home of Shirley Crook. He and two other minors committed property crimes on behalf of a neighbor who was a convicted felon. They would return the proceeds of the crime to this adult, who insisted that they could not get in trouble with the law because of their age. Through some strange twist of fate, Crook and Simmons recognized one another from an earlier car accident. Simmons, with the others, took Crook from her home and drove her to a tall bridge, where she was hog-tied, her head was covered with duct tape, and she was pushed to her death in the river below. A few days earlier, Simmons had bragged to a friend that he could get away with murder because of his age.

The reason I am relieved that it was this fact pattern that brought about the ruling, is that these facts constitute the extreme hypothetical example that proponents of juvenile execution would have relied on as the basis for their position. When confronted with the facts against juvenile execution, proponents are likely to conjure up a hypothetical cold-blooded killer who is aware of the wrongness of his acts, and in fact relies on his age to deliberately avoid punishment. Then they would ask something like "shouldn't THAT guy be treated like an adult?" The Supreme Court seems to think "not so much, no."

The state sanctioned killing of juveniles is wrong. Medical evidence presented at trial supports the position that our judgment is not sufficiently developed at 17 to produce the sort of deliberate intent needed for full criminal responsibility. There certainly seems to be a recognition of this vis-a-vis our withholding full legal rights from those who are under 18. I don't want to get into voting, the draft, cigarettes, pornography or marriage, but if we say a juvenile is adult enough to form the requisite intent to merit the death penalty, then it's worth keeping in mind all the things we feel 16 and 17 year olds are not yet mature enough to do. Simply put, children are not adults merely because we charge them as adults. Public uproar over a particularly heinous crime shifts society into revenge mode, making it easier to forget that rehabilitating criminals into society should always be a goal of corrections. It says a lot that we would be willing to execute an adolescent, since by virtue of his youth he would pose the strongest chance of eventual rehabilitation.

In closing, I am pleased to see us finally fall in line with the rest of the world, I like it better when we share policies with the EU than when we share them with Nigeria, the DRC, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and China. I think President Jimmy Carter put it best: "With this ruling, the United States acknowledges the national trend against juvenile capital punishment and joins the community of nations, which uniformly renounces this practice."

Now we get to sit back and watch reactionary Republican pundits and politicians lash out against the Court, citing the will of the people and the evils of "activist judges".


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