The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it would decide whether the nation may continue to impose the death penalty on teenagers who kill.
At issue is whether it is cruel and extreme to execute someone who committed a murder before turning 18 years old. Currently, 73 young men are on death row in 12 states for murders they committed when they were 16 or 17. More than half of them are in prison in Texas or Alabama. Two are in Florida.
The Constitution forbids "cruel and unusual punishment," but it does not define those terms. Since 1958, the high court has said it will look to "evolving standards of decency that mark a maturing society" to determine what punishments are too extreme.
The court could ban the practice, as four justices have urged, or it could reaffirm earlier rulings that allowed states to decide for themselves whether to make 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for execution. The court last took up the issue in 1989.
The court's answer, expected in the term that begins next fall, follows landmark decisions two years ago that banned the execution of the mentally retarded and required that juries, not judges, be the final arbiters of who is sent to death row.
"It's not to say that juveniles should not be held accountable for their crimes, but teenagers at that age are less mature, less able to assess risk, make good choices and control their anger and impulses," said Stephen Harper, who teaches juvenile justice law at the University of Miami.
"The argument has been that they shouldn't be subject to the ultimate punishment," because they are less culpable for their crimes than are adult killers, Harper said.
Opponents of the death penalty say their case was bolstered by a Virginia jury's recent refusal to recommend death for convicted Washington area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 when he killed FBI employee Linda Franklin.
The United States is nearly unique among nations in allowing the executions of very young killers, and the practice is rare even within the country.
Nationwide, just two teenage killers were sentenced to death last year, said Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University and author of an annual report on the juvenile death penalty.
An unusual aspect of the case announced Monday is that most of the justices have already expressed strong views on the issue: The four most liberal members have declared that the death penalty for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional, and three of the most conservative members have said it is not.
Thus the outcome is likely to hinge on the vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has hedged.
The four most liberal justices took an extraordinary step in the fall of 2002, signing a dissent in an appeal by a death row inmate that called it "shameful" to execute juvenile killers.
"The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote then. He was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The rhetoric echoed the court's ruling months earlier that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. In that 6-3 ruling, the court gave great weight to the actions of state legislatures, many of which had acted on their own to ban the practice.
The court majority said, in effect, that times change and that the constitutionality of such executions changes with them. The ruling drew fierce dissents from the court's three most conservative members, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who view the Constitution as a more rigid document.
Shortly after that ruling, Stevens predicted that juvenile killers would be the next major death penalty question before the court, but the justices had passed up several chances before accepting an appeal in the case of Christopher Simmons.
It takes at least four justices to agree to hear an appeal. That vote is secret, so it is unclear whether the court's liberals or conservatives, or both, wanted to take on the issue now.
Simmons was 17 when he and an accomplice broke into the Fenton, Mo., home of Shirley Crook in 1993, then bound her with tape, electrical wire and the belt from her bathrobe and pushed her off a railroad bridge to drown.
Prosecutors said Simmons told teenage friends that they would get away with it because of their young ages.
Missouri's highest court overturned Simmons' death sentence last year, in a ruling patterned on the Supreme Court's reasoning about the mentally retarded. Simmons now is serving a life sentence.
If the Supreme Court upholds the Missouri ruling, the 73 other death row inmates who committed their crimes before 18 would probably also receive life terms.
"I think the people of each state should be allowed to decide this themselves," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and a death penalty supporter.
Thirty-eight states now allow the death penalty, although in practice some states never impose the sentence. Of the 38, 17 states ban the sentence for those under 18: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.
The federal government also bars the execution of juveniles for federal capital crimes.
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.
On Florida's death row
There are two inmates on Florida's death row who were juveniles when they committed their crimes:
JAMES PATRICK BONIFAY was 17 when he killed Billy Wayne Coker in a 1991 robbery in Pensacola. Coker, who begged for his life and talked of his wife and children before the shooting, actually was killed by mistake. Bonifay and two other teens were allegedly hired to kill the manager of an auto parts store, but the manager was sick that day and Coker was the replacement. Bonifay is now 30.
ROSSINY ST. CLAIR was 17 when he kidnapped two young men from a North Miami street in 1997 and fatally shot one of them to keep him from testifying in a murder trial. St. Clair is now 23.
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Between 1927 and 1948, records show at least eight people were executed in Florida while they were juveniles. All eight were black teens: four were 16, four were 17. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Florida has not executed anyone for a crime committed when he was under 18.
_ Information from Times researcher Kitty Bennett was used in this report.