The Virginian Pilot

July 24, 2004


A broad swath of humanitarian, religious, medical, legal and governmental groups recently urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the death penalty for individuals whose crimes occurred before they turned 18.

The five Supreme Court justices who disagreed in 2002, when the high court last weighed the matter, should consider carefully the evidence that standards of decency have evolved.

No one disputes that Christopher Simmons, a Missouri inmate whose appeal will be heard this fall, acted cruelly in 1993 when he pushed Shirley Crook off a railroad transom to her death. Simmons was 17 at the time.

But there is mounting belief, partially based on medical evidence, that youths do not qualify for society’s harshest punishment. That sentence should be reserved for individuals whose brains have fully developed.

Simmons’ death penalty was imposed under a 1989 Supreme Court decision allowing the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds. Last August, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that sentence, arguing that it violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The state of Missouri appealed and legal officials in several states, including Virginia, joined the appeal to preserve their authority to put juveniles to death.

As the numerous opposing briefs attest, the Missouri and Virginia view is increasingly isolated from national and international sentiment. Among the filers are 17 Nobel Peace prize winners, four dozen nations, 28 U.S. religious groups, nine former diplomats and a host of professional organizations.

The worldwide community has long rejected juvenile executions. According to the briefs, only five countries - China, Iran, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States executed juvenile offenders in the past four years.

Among seven states that have carried out such executions, Texas leads with 13; Virginia is second with three. In contrast, the U.S. military, the federal government and 31 states bar the practice.

What has long been a moral and legal issue has become a medical one, as well.

Scientists once considered brains fully developed by age 12 or so. Complex imaging studies, conducted recently at major medical facilities, prove otherwise.

Intense brain changes extend into late adolescence and even beyond. Areas involving impulse control, aggression and decision-making are among those in flux.

As they did in ruling against execution of the mentally retarded two years ago, the justices will gauge the Simmons case in light of community standards. A Chesapeake jury last year offered substantial evidence of change in awarding a life sentence, not death, to convicted sniper Lee Boyd Malvo.

The time has come for the nation as a whole to join a humane chorus of opposition to the execution of juvenile killers.


The Virginian-Pilot