WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – In a major, but razor-thin, victory for children’s rights advocates, five of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court Mar. 1 declared that executing convicted murderers for crimes committed before their 18th birthday constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” and was therefore banned under the U.S. Constitution.

The majority ruling, which reversed a 1989 Supreme Court decision that murders committed by 16- and 17-year-olds could be punished by execution, held that executing minors violated “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Capital punishment for children under 16 was ruled unconstitutional by the court in 1988.


“The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. “It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest.”

Justice Kennedy noted that the trend is “toward abolition of the practice,” meaning that states are more likely to abolish the death penalty for juveniles.

“Thirty states prohibit the juvenile death penalty, including 12 that have rejected it altogether and 18 that maintain it but, by express provision or judicial interpretation, exclude juveniles from its reach,” he wrote.

He also cited “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime.”

While international opinion, he stressed, did not determine the majority’s conclusion, it constituted “respected and significant confirmation” of its view–an assertion that cheered advocates of holding the United States to international legal standards, even as it enraged three of the justices who have strongly opposed the importation of international and foreign law into the U.S. legal system.

“Today, the Court repudiated the misguided idea that the United States can pledge to leave no child behind, while simultaneously exiling children to the death chamber,” said William Schulz, executive director of the U.S. section of Amnesty International (AIUSA).

The rights group noted that the U.S. had become the only country in the world to openly execute child offenders, accounting for 19 of the world’s 39 known executions of child offenders since 1990.

Three of the dissenting justices, Anthony Scalia, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas, objected vehemently to the majority’s decision as an arrogant assertion of judicial authority over the states and the Congress. Writing for the three, Justice Scalia charged that the opinion was based “on the flimsiest of grounds.”

“The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation’s moral standards–and the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures,” he wrote in a dissent that he insisted on reading aloud from the bench.

In another dissent, the more moderate Sandra Day O’Connor said murders committed by 16- or 17-year-olds should be handled on a case-by-case basis and capital punishment should not be ruled out altogether.

“The court’s decision today establishes a categorical rule forbidding the execution of any offender for any crime committed before his 18th birthday, no matter how deliberate, wanton, or cruel the offence,” she wrote.

In each case, the maturity, as well as the depravity, of the defendant should be assessed, according to Justice O’Connor.

The respondent in the case, Christopher Simmons, was 17 years old in 1993, when he and a younger accomplice abducted a neighbour, tied her up, and threw her off a bridge to drown.

His position that he was too immature to be held fully morally accountable was supported by numerous professional groups, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychiatric Association and the American Bar Association.

An amicus brief filed by the AMA and seven others asserted that, in adolescent development, the frontal lobes of the teen brain–the region that helps curb impulses, make plans and weigh risks–are “one of the last parts of the brain to reach maturity.”

Amicus briefs were also submitted by the European Union, the Council of Europe and former UN diplomats.

Until now, the United States and Somalia were the only nations that permitted putting teenage criminals to death.

The long-awaited judgment will throw out the death sentences of 72 murderers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes out of the more than 3,400 people on death row in the 38 states that have retained capital punishment.

“I think this did bring the U.S. more in line with the human rights community, with developments around the world,” said Richard Dieter, director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

A total of 19 states permitted executions for people under 18, although only three–Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma–have carried out such executions in the past decade.