Denver Post

January 28, 2004


We view with a glimmer of hope the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement that it will decide on the death penalty for minors on an appeal from Missouri.

That the United States was the only country that carried out any executions of juvenile offenders worldwide during 2002 is a shameful stain on the nation that weakens any claim to being civilized in the 21st century.

The case that the U.S. Supreme Court will review involves the appeal of a ruling last year by Missouri’s Supreme Court, which held that executing convicted criminal Christopher Simmons would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment because the killer was younger than 18 at the time of the crime.

The Missouri court said it was following the constitutional reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in banning the execution of the mentally disabled in 2002. The U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that because numerous states had passed laws against executing mentally disabled offenders, this rendered it a cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

The nation’s highest court last addressed the death penalty for juveniles in 1988 and 1989, ruling it out for offenders under 16 when their crimes were committed but allowing it for those 16 and 17. But there have been changes since then - of the 38 states that have a death penalty, 16 don’t allow it for minors. That’s five more than in 1989. Also, 12 states have no death penalty at all for either minors or adults, meaning that minors can’t be put to death in 28 of the 50 states.

Thirty states had abolished the ultimate sanction for the mentally disabled when the court ruled it out in its 2002 decision.

As of last fall, there were 74 juvenile killers on death row in the U.S.

Opponents of executing killers under 18 say that like the mentally disabled, they might be responsible for their actions but haven’t the emotional and intellectual maturity to be culpable enough to be put to death. They cite recent research that indicates brain development is still ongoing during thyears, The Washington Post reported.

It is no badge of honor that the United States is third among the nations of the world in executing criminals. Only China and Iran put more people to death, according to Amnesty International. In 2002, China had 1,060 executions; Iran, 133; and the U.S., 71. Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, 22 of the 887 people executed were minors when they committed their offenses. Not surprisingly, Texas leads with 13 juvenile offenders executed.

The Post traditionally has opposed capital punishment, and it is our hope that the justices see the issue of executing teen offenders in a new light and abolish this odious practice.


Denver Post