Kansas City Star

July 27, 2004


Christopher Simmons was 17 and should have just graduated from high school at the time a Missouri jury sentenced him to death. A decade later, his sentence is the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case, scheduled for oral arguments in the fall.

Justices would erase an outrage by abolishing the death penalty for people who commit crimes as juveniles. Besides the United States, only China, Pakistan, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo permit executions for offenses by 16- and 17-year-olds. In this country, 31 states, including Kansas, have laws exempting juveniles from capital punishment.

The Missouri Supreme Court tried to move the state in the right direction last year by ruling that the execution of juvenile offenders violated the state constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling relied on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the execution of offenders who are mentally retarded. The state judges contended that the “national consensus” against executing people who are mentally retarded also applied to juveniles.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, never one to let the chance of an execution slip away without a fight, appealed the state Supreme Court decision. He said it was the legislature’s job to decide legal ages for the death penalty.

A broad coalition of religious, medical and psychiatric groups have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court appealing for a ban on executions for crimes committed by juveniles. These groups presented compelling testimony that juveniles have less capacity than adults to reason and consider consequences.

The court also received briefs from the European Union and dozens of countries, including Canada and Mexico. They contended that the execution of juveniles isolated the United States from the international community.

If his death sentence were revoked, Simmons would still spend the rest of his life in prison for the heinous 1993 murder of Shirley Crook, 46. No court ruling can right that enormous wrong. But capital punishment for crimes committed by the young is another wrong — one that Supreme Court justices can stop.


Kansas City Star