Miami Herald

July 21, 2004



The United States should follow the majority in this country and the rest of the world and abolish the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes as juveniles. That’s what a chorus of advocates — among them the American Bar Association, Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. diplomats and 48 countries — told the U.S. Supreme Court this week in friend of the court briefs. Executing juvenile offenders violates widely accepted human-rights standards. The United States should discontinue this practice.

The court will be hearing a case from Missouri on this issue this fall. The case involves Christopher Simmons, who at 17 broke into Shirley Crook’s home, bound and dumped her into a river to drown. Simmons and other juveniles who commit heinous crimes merit harsh punishment, including life in prison — but not the death sentence.

Teens on Death Row

In fact, Missouri’s Supreme Court overturned Simmons’ death penalty. It did so relying on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the execution of mentally retarded offenders based on a ”national consensus” that such punishment was cruel and unusual. The state of Missouri, however, appealed the Simmons decision, arguing that there is no such American consensus for juvenile offenders. The Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling that upholds the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders could be affected by this case. Also at stake are Florida’s death-penalty standard, which allows 17-year-old offenders to be executed, and the fate of four such convicts currently on Florida’s Death Row.

The friend-of-the-court briefs filed this week with the Supreme Court suggest how much attitudes have evolved. The federal government, 31 states and the U.S. military have banned execution of juvenile offenders, and only seven states have executed such offenders in 30 years. So it’s not a common practice.

Unable to reason

Stuart E. Eizenstat, Thomas R. Pickering and other retired diplomats noted that only four countries other than the United States have executed juvenile offenders in the last four years: China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan — all countries with questionable human-rights records. The U.S. practice has isolated us diplomatically and has been condemned by the international community — so says the brief by 48 countries including the European Union, Canada and Mexico. A slew of medical and psychiatric groups presents scientific evidence that 17-year-olds are, as the court found with mentally retarded individuals, ”less culpable” because of their inability to reason and control their conduct.

A moral society should dispense justice laced with mercy. We hope that the Supreme Court finds executing juvenile offenders no longer acceptable.


Miami Herald