Youth, life and death

March 02, 2005

WISELY REVERSING itself, the Supreme Court's decision that people who commit murder at the age of 16 or 17 cannot be sentenced to death for their crimes may reflect a maturing of the national consciousness as well as the proper application of law.

In 1988, the court struck down the death penalty for offenders 15 and younger at the time of their crime, but the next year, the court upheld it for those 16 and older, reflecting the fear that a generation of "superpredators" was coming. That fear, the basis of many other harsh juvenile policies now being toned down, has never proved true. Today's kids are much like every other generation of kids, despite their 21st-century veneer.

The court also had argued that there was no national consensus against executing teenagers; yesterday, it acknowledged that there now is. In 1988, only 10 states allowed the execution of people who committed capital crimes at the ages of 16 or 17; no other states have joined them. Only six states have executed juvenile offenders, who were adults at the time they were put to death, and more states have enacted legal or procedural barriers to the punishment.

The overwhelming majority of recent research into human development has shown that the parts of the brain that govern reason, judgment and impulse control mature much later than had been assumed - usually between the ages of 18 and 21. And as the court declared in 2002 that it was unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded convicts, so it follows that the same must be true of not-yet-mature convicts, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the majority opinion.

Not-yet-mature is a mild way to put it, as parents, teachers and others in day-to-day contact with teenagers can affirm. They aren't considered wise enough to buy beer or cigarettes or get married without permission, and rightly so.

There is no argument that the crime in the case under consideration by the court was heinous. At 17, Christopher Simmons beat and bound a woman, then dropped her into a creek to drown. His later bragging to others that he would get off because of his age adds to the outrage - but it is also a sign of typically dumb adolescent behavior. He has not gotten off; he likely will never be released from prison.

That also is true of teenage sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, whose behavior appears to have been heavily influenced by another, and more than 70 others across the nation.

It is fitting that Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion; he had voted with the majority in the earlier case and was the deciding vote - and the only one not already known - on this one.

And it is heartening that our nation has matured as well. Now only Somalia permits putting children who kill to death.

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