The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case next term that will decide whether this nation's evolving standards of decency can no longer tolerate executing prisoners who committed their crimes before turning 18.
The court will be returning to an issue it addressed in 1989 when it said the Eighth Amendment's prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment is not a bar to executing 16- and 17-year-olds. Since then, five more states have ended the death penalty for minors either by legislation or judicial ruling, making a total of 17 of the 38 death penalty states that reserve the ultimate punishment for adult perpetrators. Florida currently has two young men on death row who committed their crimes before reaching adulthood.
The court should take this opportunity to restrict capital punishment to only the most culpable defendants. Minors who commit heinous crimes should receive harsh sentences but they are in a different category from violent adult criminals. Juveniles have a diminished capacity to make informed judgments, control their impulses and understand the consequences of their actions. The law looks upon juveniles and adults far differently, barring minors from voting, drinking and entering into contracts due to their lack of maturity.
We hope this case will follow the ruling made by the high court two years ago when it barred execution of the mentally retarded on the grounds that a new national consensus had emerged making it inhumane to do so. That case was decided by a 6-to-3 vote with Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor joining the four liberal justices.
It is worth noting that only two minors were sentenced to the death penalty last year, the fewest in 15 years. The nation could be losing its taste for sending its youngest murderers to the death chamber. Recently, a Virginia jury refused to recommend death for Lee Boyd Malvo, the Washington area sniper, who was 17 years old when he killed FBI employee Linda Franklin.
The case of Roper vs. Simmons is coming before the court at the behest of the state of Missouri. Last August, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Christopher Simmons because he was only 17 when he murdered a woman during a burglary attempt. Both ideological sides of the court had a reason to take this case and there is no way to predict how the court will rule. But the United States currently has the dubious distinction of standing alone as the only nation on earth that formally permits executions of someone under 18 years old.
Once imprisoned, there is little additional safety to be gained by executing minors. It seems the only reason we retain this shameful practice is to satisfy a need for vengeance. It is time we join the rest of civilization.