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Young Punks Looking for Kicks: Can Now Kill

Ruling that it was excessive and cruel to execute someone under 18, the Supreme Court kind of forgot the cruelty extended to victims and their families from young punks looking for kicks.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles Tuesday, ruling that it was excessive and cruel to execute a person who was under 18 when the crime was committed.

Juveniles are less mature than adults and, no matter how heinous their crimes, they are not among “the worst offenders” who deserve to die, the 5-4 majority said. Three years ago, the court struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded criminals; the logic of that ruling called for a similar stance on juvenile offenders, the court said.

Tuesday’s decision means that 72 convicted murderers on death rows in 12 states will be resentenced. The ruling will also prohibit execution of defendants in pending cases – including Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the snipers who terrorized Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs in 2002.

Because he was 17 when the crimes occurred, Malvo was tried in Virginia – which permitted the execution of juveniles. But in his first trial, in Fairfax County, he was sentenced to life in prison. Until Tuesday, prosecutors hoping to win a death sentence had planned to retry Malvo in another Virginia county where one of the shootings occurred.

The Constitution bars “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the majority opinion – quoting Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958 – said this rule must be judged by “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

By that standard, the practice of executing young killers has become rare, outmoded and unwarranted, the majority said.

In the U.S., only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have executed juveniles in the last decade.

Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo and China have executed juvenile offenders since 1990, the court said, but those nations since have disavowed the practice.

“The stark reality is that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, an appointee of President Reagan, wrote for the majority.

“It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty,” he said. “While not controlling our outcome, [it] does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.”

That comment drew a strong rebuke from Justice Antonin Scalia – another Reagan appointee – whose dissent accused the majority of changing the Constitution to fit its own shifting views of what was proper. He said international opinion should play no role in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

“The court proclaims itself the sole arbiter of our nation’s moral standards – and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures,” Scalia said. “I do not believe that the meaning of our [Constitution] should be determined by the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners.”

Scalia said the court should have allowed juries to continue to decide whether young killers deserved to die.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined Kennedy’s opinion setting 18 as the minimum age for capital punishment. They noted that in nearly every state, 18 is the minimum age for voting, serving on juries and obtaining marriage licenses without parental permission.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court’s usual swing vote, dissented separately. She said she agreed with Kennedy that the court should look to “evolving standards of decency,” but she disagreed that there was a “national consensus” against executing young killers.

Since 1976, when the court upheld a new generation of capital punishment laws, the justices have been considering limits on such sentences.

In 1977, the court abolished the death penalty for crimes short of murder. Eleven years later, it ruled that capital punishment could not be imposed on anyone 15 or younger – although in 1989 it upheld death sentences for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Human rights activists and death penalty foes hailed the court’s ruling Tuesday.

“This decision confirms what we all know and what science recently has proven: Kids are different,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “Kids are different from adults, and by their very nature cannot qualify as the ‘worst of the worst’ standard used by some to justify a sentence of death.”

Former President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, also praised the outcome. “With this ruling, the United States … joins the community of nations, which uniformly renounces this practice,” Carter said.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was “very encouraged” that the court was moving toward abolishing capital punishment.

Death penalty advocates were strongly critical of the ruling. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America – a coalition of law enforcement professionals – called the decision “an abomination of justice.” Spokesman Kevin Watson said the decision showed “the strong need to appoint the right judges. There are some judges who want to weaken our criminal justice system and some who do not.”

Kennedy rarely has been perceived as soft on crime. In 1989, he cast the key vote to uphold mandatory drug testing for certain federal government jobs, and he once delivered a 5-4 ruling that upheld a life prison term for a Michigan man convicted of his first drug offense.

He also cast the key vote to uphold California’s “three strikes” law in a ruling that sent a shoplifter to prison for life.

Like Scalia, Kennedy is a Roman Catholic who says his faith strongly influences his life. But unlike Scalia, he believes the court must give a broad interpretation to the basic freedoms and liberties in the Constitution.

Two years ago, he spoke for the court in saying that gays and lesbians were entitled to dignity and respect in their private lives. His opinion struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law that allowed the arrest and prosecution of gay men for having sex at home.

Kennedy says he strongly opposes abortion personally and morally; but in 1992, he cast a key vote to preserve the basic right of women to choose abortion.

When the court took up the issue of the death penalty for juveniles, it was clear the outcome would depend on Kennedy and O’Connor. The four most liberal justices already had said they viewed the practice as archaic and unconstitutional. The three staunchest conservatives made clear their view that states and juries should decide the punishment for murder.

When Kennedy began reading his opinion Tuesday, he described the murder perpetrated by Christopher Simmons, then 17. In 1993, Simmons and two younger accomplices broke into a neighbor’s home, intending to burglarize it. When the neighbor, Shirley Crook, awoke and recognized him, Simmons tied her up, put duct tape over her eyes and mouth, put her in a minivan and threw her off a railroad bridge south of St. Louis. She drowned in the waters below.

Simmons bragged about the crime, and soon was arrested and charged with kidnapping and capital murder. Prosecutors described the crime as “wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman,” and the jury sentenced Simmons to die.

Two years ago, Missouri’s highest court overturned that sentence because of his age at the time of the crime, forcing the Supreme Court to revisit the issue in Roper vs. Simmons.

Kennedy concluded that even the “coldblooded nature” of a crime like this did not call for execution: “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the basic liberties, but [it] cannot extinguish his life.”


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