Not one more life

October 13, 2004

FEW WOULD ARGUE that 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to buy tobacco, sign contracts, join the military. It's time that thinking was reflected in U.S. policy on the legality of killing underage killers.

The Supreme Court today will consider the case of Christopher Simmons, who was sentenced to death for a murder he committed when he was 17. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned Mr. Simmons' death sentence, accepting the argument that the standards defining cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the Constitution, had changed since 1989, the last time the nation's top court had ruled on the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles.

What has changed? The courts are catching up with the rest of the nation.

In 1989, the year the Supreme Court held that there was no national consensus against executing people who committed capital crimes at the age of 16 or 17, only 10 states allowed the practice, according to the American Bar Association. No states have joined them since. Only six states have executed juvenile offenders, who were adults by the time they were put to death.

In the courts, a turning point was the Supreme Court's Atkins vs. Virginia decision last session, which held that executing mentally retarded offenders qualified as cruel and unusual, setting a standard for judging national consensus and declaring again that incompetence is an argument against death. Just as with mentally disabled people, executing people who kill as children also would not deter other juveniles, who lack the mental, social and emotional development to fully understand cause and mortal effect.

There also is a greater danger of executing the innocent - children are more likely to wrongly confess and less likely to represent themselves appropriately to the court and to their own lawyers. Mr. Simmons' crime was heinous, and his bragging to others that he would get off because of his age especially egregious - though a sign of typically dumb adolescent behavior.

Following Atkins, the growing national consensus and the weight of the medical and social research showing that kids are indeed not yet adults, the nation's high court should back its appellate branch and commute Mr. Simmons' sentence to life in prison. Courts ought to show better judgment than teenagers do.

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