Justices to hear case on juvenile death penalty

Four on Supreme Court called practice `shameful'

Possible implications for Malvo

Executing young killers might be declared `cruel'

January 27, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider abolishing the death penalty for juvenile killers, one of the most prominent questions still before the court as it revisits how capital punishment is carried out across the country.

Legal scholars said the court appears poised to reverse a 1989 decision and declare the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Two years ago, the court ended the death penalty for the mentally retarded and, in an unusual statement issued less than a year later, four justices called execution of juveniles "shameful."

The court said yesterday that it would hear the case of a Missouri man sentenced to death for robbing and killing a woman when he was 17.

The decision could have high-profile implications - most notably for Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, who was convicted of carrying out the Washington-area sniper attacks that claimed 10 lives while he was 17. A Virginia jury spared Malvo a death sentence, citing his age as one factor, but he is expected to face other death penalty trials.

"It is not a question of whether the Supreme Court will declare this unconstitutional, but when," said Victor L. Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who has extensively studied juvenile death penalty issues and supports a ban. "Maybe this will be the time, maybe it won't, but it's soon."

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School who believes the death penalty should be preserved for teen-age killers, agreed. "My prediction is they will outlaw capital punishment for those under 18," said Blecker, who said the court then is likely to turn to the questions of whether killers under 21 should face death sentences or those who have borderline mental retardation.

One issue before the justices is whether public sentiment surrounding capital punishment has shifted since the Supreme Court, ruling in a Kentucky case in 1989, allowed states to execute killers who were 16 or older at the time they committed their crimes.

The court also is expected to weigh the question of how capable youthful defendants are of understanding the implications of their crimes.

Both issues are key factors in determining whether the practice violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," and both shaped the court's 6-3 ruling in the 2002 case involving a Virginia man, Darryl Renard Atkins, that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutionally cruel.

Eye on higher court

The Missouri Supreme Court closely tracked the legal arguments in the Atkins case when it overturned the death sentence of Christopher Simmons, now 27, who was 17 in September 1993 when he broke into the home of Shirley Crook, robbed her, wrapped her head and hands in duct tape and electrical wire, and pushed her from a railroad bridge into a river.

Simmons confessed to the killing, which he planned with two teen-age friends after assuring them that "their status as juveniles would allow them to get away with it," according to court papers filed by the Missouri attorney general's office.

His death sentence was once upheld by the state's highest court before defense attorneys successfully argued that the execution of juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual. In its ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court wrote that, "This court finds that the [U.S.] Supreme Court would today hold such executions are prohibited."

The 4-3 decision came with a sharp dissent from state judge William Ray Price Jr., who wrote: "It is the United States Supreme Court's prerogative, and its alone, to overrule one of its decisions."

Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond, Va., defense attorney who closely tracks death penalty issues, said the Missouri ruling appeared to have forced the hand of the Supreme Court. Twice last year, the court refused to hear appeals by death row inmates who were teen-agers when they committed their crimes.

The court also refused in October 2002 to hear an appeal on the issue from Kevin Stanford, the Kentucky man at the center of the court's 1989 ruling. The decision not to hear Stanford's case prompted a dissenting opinion from Justice John Paul Stevens in which he called executing juvenile offenders "a relic of that past."

"We should put an end to this shameful practice," Stevens wrote. His dissent was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

Streib, at Ohio Northern University, said the statement provided rare encouragement for death penalty opponents going into the Missouri case.

"It is kind of unusual to start with four justices in your pocket," he said. "Of course, predicting how the court is going to come out is crazy - it's just impossible to do."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.