News & Observer

July 24, 2004


Americans increasingly are uneasy over the frequency with which condemned inmates are found to be innocent or to have had trials that were tainted by prosecutorial or police overreaching. But for good reason, there’s an added layer of unease about sending people to the death chamber whose crimes were committed when they were juveniles. While there’s little sentiment for executing the rare child who goes so horribly astray as to commit murder, the issue is murkier for teenagers on the border of adulthood.

Still, modern science has determined that the parts of the brain that control reasoning abilities aren’t as developed in 16- and 17-year-olds as they are in adults. And reliable scientific research should help mold public policy. To its credit, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Missouri case that could result in states being allowed to sternly punish teenagers who make such terrible decisions, but without the lethal severity reserved for those who had reached 18 when they committed their crime.

The justices will hear, probably this spring, an appeal by the State of Missouri of a ruling by its state supreme court that executing Christopher Simmons — 17 when he killed a woman in 1993 — would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. North Carolina law allows death sentences for those who were 17 or older when they killed someone.

In all, five men on this state’s death row would be spared if the Supreme Court sides with the Missouri justices. The principle should be similar to the one that led the high court to bar execution of the mentally retarded as cruel and unusual.

There is a strong case for suspending the use of capital punishment entirely, given how capriciously it tends to be imposed. But certainly a civilized society, employing knowledge and compassion, would reject it as a punishment for those whose youth may have kept them from reasoning as an adult.


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