Battleboro (Vermont) Reformer

October 13, 2004

One night in 1993, Shirley Crook was awakened by 2 burglars in her Missouri home. She was bound with duct tape. She was dragged out of the house. And, still alive and conscious, she was tossed from a railroad trestle into a river where she died.

Anglers found her body and within 2 days Christopher Simmons confessed to committing the crimes with a friend. A jury later convicted him of murder and a judge sentenced him to death.

The law didn’t deem him mature or responsible enough to vote, buy cigarettes, drink alcohol, drive or get married in some states, but it did consider him old enough to be executed.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether it’s appropriate for Simmons, who was 17 at the time, to pay the ultimate price.

While we think Simmons, and other minors who commit heinous acts, should be punished, we think it is wrong to kill young people — even if they are young people who have killed.

If the high court agrees, it will be a landmark victory for child and human rights advocates, but it will also be a win for death penalty opponents, who view the possible ruling as one more way to curtail the law.

Vermont banned capital punishment in 1964. Like a handful of other states, officials here recognized the law as fallible, unfair, arbitrary and often racially discriminatory.

38 states still issue death sentences, however, and there are nearly 3,500 death row inmates across the country right now.

We hope that someday the high court will change that, too. For now, we’re advocating for the 72 death row inmates who committed crimes when they were between the ages 15 and 17.

Those who support the death penalty for juveniles say 16- or 17-year-olds who kill are culpable, aware of their actions and should be tried as adults. Five states have taken this position in filings with the high court: Alabama, Delaware, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah and, of course, Texas, which claims 13 of the country’s 22 juvenile executions since 1974.

However, their protests seem like whispers next to those opposing executing minors: The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, religious leaders, attorneys general from 8 states and 48 nations have weighed in with their own legal briefs.

They argue that law prohibits behavior for teens because they are not wise enough to understand the consequences of their actions and, similarly, the law should prohibit death sentences for people too young to fully realize what they do.

They point to psychological studies which offer evidence that teenagers cannot control impulses, are subject to peer pressure and that their brains are not mature.

And they note that the United States is one of only five countries that still issue death sentences to minors.

The others? China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan.


Battleboro (Vermont) Reformer