Supreme Court Strikes Down Death Penalty for Juveniles
By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; 3:07 PM
The Supreme Court, in a landmark death penalty
decision, today barred executions of people under 18
years of age at the time of their crimes.
By vote of 5-to-4, the court said in a case from
Missouri that there is now a "consensus" in American
society that juveniles, along with the mentally
retarded, are "less culpable" for their crimes because
they lack sound judgment.
Execution is therefore a "disproportionate" sanction
that violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel
and unusual punishment, the court ruled, overturning a
precedent it established in Stanford v. Kentucky in
The court has already banned capital punishment on
offenders who committed crimes under the age of 15.
Today�s decision will move 70 people off death row.
The decision almost certainly means that Washington
area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, sentenced to life in
Fairfax County after a jury declined to impose the
death penalty, cannot be sentenced to death elsewhere
in the state, which is one of 20 that allow the
imposition of capital punishment on people that young.
A growing number of states have forbidden the death
penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, either by
law or by state court ruling, a trend cited by the
Supreme Court today in establishing that as the
country's views are changing, so should the court's.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, which
included Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The dissenters were Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who
said no such "consensus" had been established, and
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice
William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas, who wrote that
the court was improperly substituting its own views
for the views of the country's state legislatures.
"The court says in so many words that what our
people's laws say about the issue does not, in the
last analysis, matter," Scalia said.
The case at issue came from Missouri, where the
state's highest court overturned the death sentence
given to Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he
kidnapped a neighbor, hog-tied her and threw her off a
bridge in 1993. Prosecutors say he planned the
burglary and killing of Shirley Crook and bragged that
he could get away with it because of his age.
The Supreme Court's decision continues a gradual
narrowing by the court during the past 30 years of the
circumstances in which capital punishment may be
imposed. Most recently, it said that individuals who
were mentally retarded at the time of their crime
could not be executed.
As it has narrowed, the court has explicitly
considered public opinion, specifically what it has
called society's "evolving standards of decency." As
the country's attitudes toward the ultimate punishment
have changed, the court has said, so may the laws.
This is the situation in this case, the court stated
today. Fewer and fewer states are actually executing
people for crimes committed as juveniles, Kennedy
said. Since the Stanford ruling in 1989, five states
that allowed the juvenile death penalty have abandoned
"We consider the change . . . to be significant,"
Kennedy wrote, not so much because of "'the number of
these states . . ." but because of "'the consistency
of the direction of change.'"