The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Juvenile Executions Ruled Unconstitutional

Feature Story by civilrights.org staff - 3/2/2005

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Constitution bars the execution of offenders who were younger than 18 when their crimes were committed.

Referring to "contemporary standards of decency," the Court held 5-4 that imposing the death penalty on juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

The ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which arose out of a Missouri case, overturns the death sentences imposed upon about 70 juvenile offenders. It also sweeps aside a precedent it established in 1989, when a different lineup of justices upheld capital punishment for 16 and 17-year old offenders.

When the Court refused to hear a similar case in 2002, four of the justices who formed the majority here -- John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer -- dissented, calling the practice of executing juveniles "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."

Writing for the Roper majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that outlawing the death penalty for juveniles was a natural conclusion in light of the Court's 6-3 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that the execution of the mentally retarded was unconstitutional.

In Roper, the Court found, as in Atkins, "objective indicia of national consensus," in this case, "the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of States; the infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books; and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of its practice."

This evidence demonstrated that society viewed juveniles as "categorically less culpable than the average criminal," making imposition of the death penalty an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment.

"When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties," the majority stated, "but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity."

According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), 31 states ban the execution of juvenile offenders. Of the remaining states, only 12 have juvenile offenders on death row.

"The stark reality," according to the Court, was that "the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty." While not controlling, the Court found the "overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty" to be "respected and significant confirmation" of the majority's decision.

"Today the United States joins the international family, at least when it comes to the issue of the juvenile death penalty," said NCADP's David Elliot. "The company we have kept in recent years - Saudi Arabia, China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan, all countries that have executed juvenile offenders since 1990 - is not savory, to say the least. With today's ruling, we affirm that we can do better."

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