The (Albany, NY) Times Union

October 16, 2004


The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to decide if juveniles should face capital punishment

At long last, the U.S. Supreme Court is revisiting an issue it has avoided since 1988: whether the death penalty should be imposed on juveniles who commit capital crimes. The court last had a chance to address the question in 2003, but chose to pass and let the states puzzle it themselves. This time the justices should come down with a clear ruling that ends this archaic practice.

Yet if there were any hints how the court will vote, they weren’t obvious in the justices’ remarks during arguments heard Wednesday. It may come down to a swing vote — most likely by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy — to side with, or against, the four justices who are on record as opposing juvenile executions — John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Those four justices share the sentiments of almost every other country on earth. Even countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, where minors have been executed in recent years, are now on record in opposition to capital punishment for juveniles. “We are literally alone in the world,” Seth Waxman told the justices Wednesday. Mr. Waxman represents Christopher Simmons, who is on Missouri’s death row for kidnapping and throwing a neighbor off a bridge to her death when he was 17.

It was a horrific crime, and one that Missouri prosecutors said was methodically planned and executed. But the question the court must decide is whether a 17-year-old is mature enough to grasp the consequences of his or her actions, no matter how brutal or premeditated. The court already has resolved that question for those 15 years old or younger. It has banned their executions on the grounds they are too immature to understand the enormity of their actions. So now the question involves only 16- and 17-year-olds, and how much more mature they might be than they were at 15.

To try to answer that question Wednesday, the justices listened to scientific testimony on the development of the teenage brain. What they ought to do, though, is ask the jurors in the Lee Boyd Malvo case for their views. That Virginia jury deadlocked on whether Malvo should face execution for his role in the Washington-area sniper spree that killed 10 people in 2003. Some of the jurors refused to consider capital punishment because they viewed the defendant as an impressionable youth who fell under the influence of John Allen Muhammad, who was sentenced to death in a separate trial for those murders.

Today, Lee Boyd Malvo is serving a life sentence, a heavy penalty to pay for his crimes. It is also an appropriate penalty for all juveniles who take the lives of others.


The (Albany, NY) Times Union