News and Record

October 18, 2004


The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments in a Missouri case that will decide whether inmates on America’s death rows can be executed if they committed murder at age 16 or 17. The court already forbids the execution of people younger than 15.

The court’s decision affects five North Carolina prisoners, all of whom are adults now but who were 17 when they committed murders. N.C. law forbids the execution of 16-year-olds. Yet it permits the execution of those who were 17 when they murdered.

We oppose the death penalty because we believe that it is administered arbitrarily. That view has been validated in recent years with the release of more than 100 death-row inmates who were wrongly convicted.

The case before the Supreme Court could, depending on the outcome, restrict capital punishment by forbidding the execution of a prisoner who was younger than 18 when he killed. It involves Christopher Simmons, who committed murder in 1993 when he was 17. Last year, in a 4-2 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court commuted Simmons’ sentence to life without parole. The state of Missouri appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Simmons’ lawyers are making the same argument before the U.S. Supreme Court that they used in Missouri: namely, that scientific studies show a teenager’s brain is not fully developed until he or she reaches their early 20s.

The underdeveloped portion makes teenagers more prone to impulsive behavior and peer pressure, said Seth P. Waxman, Simmons’ attorney. Waxman drew an analogy between Simmons’ case and a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that banned the execution of moderately retarded inmates.

He suggested that if a brain deficiency prevented the mentally retarded from being executed, the same standard should apply to teenagers.

As pure science, the validity of that point is debatable. But many rights, privileges and obligations in this country are governed by age and based on the obvious premise that the maturity and judgment of youths does not typically match the judgment of adults.

The court is often deeply divided on death penalty cases. John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer already oppose juvenile executions. Chief Justice Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas support the death penalty. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy are the swing votes. Justice Kennedy sounded especially skeptical.

Ever since states were allowed to reinstate capital punishment in 1976, the courts have heard endless cases determining who can be executed. Executions ought to be abolished altogether. Until then, however, the court should forbid executions of those who were juveniles when they committed their crimes.


News & Record