Arizona Daily Star

JANUARY 29, 2004

“Executing Young Offenders”
Public sentiment and state practices are leading the way, and now the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether criminals can be executed if they committed their crimes when they were 16 and 17 years old.

The court agreed to hear an appeal from the Missouri Supreme Court. That court ruled last year that executing Christopher Simmons, now 27, would amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s provision against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Simmons was 17 when he committed a murder.

Deciding the constitutionality of executing teen offenders is a natural progression for the Supreme Court. In 2002, the court ruled that the mentally retarded could not be executed for their crimes.

That decision was based largely on public opinion that no longer accepted such executions. When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty for Simmons, it cited the Supreme Court’s ruling on the mentally retarded. The divided court in Missouri voted 4-3 and said that a “national consensus” had grown against the execution of teen offenders.

All evidence points to the truth of that statement. News stories note that the executions are becoming increasingly rare. A total of 38 states allow the death penalty, but only 22 of those allow teen offenders to be executed. The Washington Post reports that since executions were reinstated in 1976, 22 juvenile offenders have been executed. Teens whose crimes were committed when they were 15 and under cannot be sentenced to death.

Anti-capital punishment advocates are leading this push and their agenda is transparent - elimination of the death penalty. However, eliminating capital punishment for teens and the mentally retarded is a far cry from total elimination of the death penalty.

There is some indication that acceptance of this case was pushed by the more conservative justices on the court who favor the death penalty. If so, their votes would conserve the status quo.

They are not likely to be swayed, even by evidence that the brains of people in the 16- and 17-year old age group are still growing and changing. But if “evolving standards of decency in a civilized society” are to be used to end capital punishment for those who don’t understand the nature of their crimes, then offenders aged 16 and 17 should be included.

However, the larger issue is that the time has come to start dismantling all capital punishment. As some members of this court have said before, the death penalty does not fit into any notion of a decent and civilized society.

The Supreme Court should strike down the practice of putting to death teen offenders. It is a necessary move toward the inevitable elimination of the death penalty.