Chicago Sun-Times

October 26, 2004


In 1993, 17-year-old Christopher Simmons and Charlie Benjamin, 15, broke into the home of Shirley Crook. They bound her hands, covered her face with duct tape, took her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River outside St. Louis. There they hog-tied her with electrical wire and pushed her into the water.

Benjamin was too young to be sentenced to death, but Simmons wasn’t. He was scheduled to be executed on May 1, 2002. An appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court vacated his death sentence in favor of life imprisonment, citing the 8th Amendment and saying juvenile executions violate “evolving standards of decency.” The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Simmons’ cold-blooded murder of Crook is disturbing. But so are the details of his life. His alcoholic stepfather sadistically brutalized him; his mother was too afraid of her second husband to step in to protect her child. Simmons was essentially abandoned by all the adults around him. He tried to escape through drink and drugs. The clinical psychologist who examined him said Simmons had a mental disorder. This does not excuse his violence, but it does underline what the Missouri court understood as the fragility and immaturity of the adolescent mind.

Psychologists, behavioral scientists and biologists agree adolescents do not have a developed ability to reason. They are wired to behave more irrationally. In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court determined capital punishment for those 15 and under should be banned because they are not morally culpable. Only 22 states allow the execution of juveniles, and polls show most Americans are opposed to it. We don’t allow teens to vote until they are 18; they can’t be drafted into the military or enter into a contract until then. The American Bar Association, the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University and other legal and human rights groups have asked for clemency in Simmons’ case. We agree: He should spend the rest of his days in prison thinking about his crime.


Chicago Sun-Times