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Court to Hear Pleas On Executing Juveniles

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; Page A03

Christopher Simmons was 17 on Sept. 8, 1993, when he and a 16-year-old accomplice broke into Shirley Crook's house, kidnapped her, drove her to a railroad trestle and threw her, bound and gagged, into the Meramec River. Crook's body surfaced the next day.

To the state of Missouri, this was not only a brutal crime but also a coldly calculated one, amply deserving of the death sentence a jury meted out.

Christopher Simmons was 17 when he helped kidnap and murder a woman in Missouri. He received the death penalty. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

But Simmons argues that he was a troubled youth at the time, emotionally unformed, impulsive and influenced by an older criminal mentor. To execute him, or anyone else, for a murder he committed while under the age of 18 would itself be an outrage -- a violation of the constitutional prohibition on "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Today, lawyers for both sides will argue Simmons's case before the Supreme Court, as the justices take up an issue that has divided them and touched a nerve at home and abroad.

There are 72 juvenile offenders on death row, including 42 in Texas and Alabama. There have been 22 executions of juvenile offenders since 1976, 18 of them in Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma.

With the United States under fire in international human rights forums because it is the only democracy that still permits the death penalty for offenders younger than 18, the court's ruling will have both national and worldwide significance.

The court is being heavily lobbied by international organizations and dignitaries in this case, with the European Union, Nobel Peace laureates headed by former president Jimmy Carter and a group of former U.S. ambassadors urging an end to what they consider U.S. isolation on the issue.

Such considerations are relevant in the Simmons case, because the court weighs death penalty laws according to what a 1958 ruling called the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." The court looks to state legislation and jury verdicts to decide whether a "national consensus" has developed against a practice that was previously accepted -- but it has recently opened the door to world opinion as a measure of moral consensus.

In 2002, the court voted 6 to 3 to strike down the death penalty for the moderately mentally retarded, which it had upheld 5 to 4 in 1989. In the 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the court noted that the number of death penalty states that ban the practice had grown from two in 1989 to 13 in 2002, while none had gone the other way.

The ruling also took account of the fact that within the "world community," capital punishment for the retarded was "overwhelmingly disapproved."

The court struck down capital punishment for offenders age 15 and younger in 1988, but the following year it upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old murderers by 5 to 4. At the time, only 12 of the 37 death penalty states banned the practice -- insufficient evidence, the court ruled, of a "national consensus" against it.

Simmons and his supporters argue that, as in Atkins, times have changed. Since 1989, the number of death penalty states that do not permit the death penalty for juvenile offenders has grown to 19, with no states lowering the age. Juries have imposed capital punishment less frequently.

Perhaps the most recent case to focus the debate was that of Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, one of two D.C.-area snipers. Despite prosecutors' pleas, a Virginia jury chose to sentence Malvo, who had had a troubled childhood and fallen under the strong influence of his adult accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, to life imprisonment without parole.

But Missouri's brief notes that the trend toward abolition involves only a few states, so the legislative head count is "not appreciably different" from what it was in 1989.

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