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Wednesday, March 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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High court: Juveniles don't deserve to die

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court yesterday abolished the death penalty for juveniles, ruling that it is excessive and cruel to execute a person who was younger than 18 when the crime was committed.

Juveniles are less mature than adults and, no matter how heinous their crimes, they are not among "the worst offenders" who deserve to die, the 5-4 majority said.

Three years ago, the court struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded criminals; the logic of that ruling called for a similar ban on capital punishment for juvenile offenders, the court said.

Yesterday's decision means that 72 convicted murderers on death row in 12 states will be resentenced.

The Constitution bars the use of "cruel-and-unusual punishments," and the majority opinion — quoting Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958 — said this rule must be judged by "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." By that standard, executing killers who were juveniles when they committed their crimes has become rare, outmoded and unwarranted, the majority said.

Only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have executed juveniles in the past decade. Outside the United States, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo and China have executed juvenile offenders since 1990, the court said, but since have disavowed the practice.

"The stark reality is that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

"It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty," he said. "While not controlling our outcome, [it] does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions."

That comment drew an especially strong rebuke from Justice Antonin Scalia, whose dissent accused the majority of changing the Constitution to fit its own shifting views of what is proper. He also insisted that international opinion should play no role in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

Scalia said the majority had made a "mockery" of the court's adherence to tradition and precedent. Just 15 years ago, the justices banned executions of juveniles younger than 16 but allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to face ultimate punishment.

"The court reaches this implausible result by purporting to advert, not to the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, but to evolving standards of decency," Scalia said. "It then finds, on the flimsiest of grounds, that a national consensus which could not be perceived in our people's laws barely 15 years ago now solidly exists ... "

Scalia pointed out that in 1989, 14 of the nation's 38 states allowing the death penalty exempted defendants younger than 18, but only four more states have adopted such bans since then. "Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of death-penalty states can constitute a national consensus," he wrote.

"The court proclaims itself the sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards — and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures," Scalia said. "I do not believe that the meaning of our [Constitution] should be determined by the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners."

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Kennedy's opinion. They noted that in nearly every state, 18 is the minimum age for voting, serving on juries and obtaining a marriage license without a parent's permission.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's dissent.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's usual swing vote, dissented separately. She said she agreed with Kennedy that the court should look to "evolving standards of decency," but she disagreed that there was a "national consensus" against executing young killers.

Since 1976, when the court upheld a new generation of capital-punishment laws, the justices have been considering limits on the imposition of such sentences.

In 1977, the court abolished the death penalty for rape and other crimes short of murder. Eleven years later, it ruled capital punishment could not be imposed on anyone 15 or younger, although in 1989 it upheld death sentences for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Since then, 20 states have permitted prosecutors to seek the death penalty for murderers younger than 18 at the time their crime was committed. Eighteen states authorize the death penalty but have set a minimum age of 18. Congress set the same minimum when it restored the federal death penalty.

Yesterday's ruling was greeted with hearty praise from the nation's anti-death-penalty organizations and from such diverse groups as the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the European Union. All had filed briefs in support of Christopher Simmons, a Missouri inmate who, at 17, kidnapped a woman from her home, bound her to a chair and tossed her off a bridge into a river.

However, death-penalty advocates were strongly critical. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a coalition of law-enforcement professionals, called the decision "an abomination of justice."

When Kennedy began reading his opinion yesterday, he described in detail the murder perpetrated by Simmons. In 1993, he and two younger accomplices broke into a neighbor's home, intending to burglarize it.

When the neighbor, Shirley Crook, awoke and recognized him, Simmons tied her up, put duct tape over her eyes and mouth, put her in the back of a minivan and threw her off a railroad bridge south of St. Louis. She drowned in the waters below.

Simmons bragged about the crime and was arrested and charged with kidnapping and capital murder. The jury sentenced him to die.

Two years ago, Missouri's highest court overturned that sentence because of his age at the time of the crime, forcing the Supreme Court to revisit the issue.

Kennedy concluded that even the "cold-blooded nature" of a crime like this does not call for an execution. "When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the basic liberties, but [it] cannot extinguish his life."

Details of Justice Scalia's dissent and the list of anti-death-penalty groups supporting yesterday's ruling were reported by Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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