Nature of Case
Whether it is unconstitutional, according to the 8th Amendment, for the death penalty to be imposed on offenders under the age of 18, when the crime was committed.
Facts of Case
In 1993, at the age of 17, Christopher Simmons was a junior in high school, and determined he wanted to murder someone. He discussed this desire with his friends, and devised a plan to break into someone’s house, tie up the victim, and throw the victim off a bridge. He informed his friends, (ages 15 and 16), they could all “get away with it,” because they were minors. They met at 2 am on the night of the murder, but the 16-year-old left before the crime was committed. They entered the home of Shirley Crook, Simmons recognized her from a car accident they had previously been involved in, and this confirmed his resolve to murder her. They covered her eyes and mouth with duct tape and bound her hands, put her in her own minivan, and drove to a state park. At the park, they covered her head with a towel, tied her hands and feet with electrical wire, wrapped her whole head in duct tape, threw her from a bridge, and left her to drown in the water below.
Shirley Crook’s body was discovered by fishermen. Meanwhile, Simmons had bragged about the murder. He was arrested, waived his right to an attorney, and agreed to perform a videotaped reenactment of the events. He was charged with burglary, kidnapping, stealing, and first degree murder, and he was tried as an adult. He was convicted of murder, the jury found that the prosecution had proven the three aggravating factors it had presented, recommended death during the sentencing phase, and the judge accepted the jury’s recommendation.
Simmons appealed, applied for post-conviction relief, and petitioned for cert. All were denied. However, following the Atkins (2002) decision, Simmons filed a new petition for state postconviction relief, arguing that the reasoning in Atkins applied to his case. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed and stated that “a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders.” The Missouri Supreme Court set aside his death sentence and resentenced him to life imprisonment, without the possibility for parole. The United States Supreme Court granted cert.
Is it permissible, under the 8th and 14th Amendments, to execute offenders who were 16 or 17 years old, at the time of they committed capital crimes?
In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court affirmed the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, and found it unconstitutional to execute any individual who was under the age of 18, at the time the crime was committed. In an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court found that “the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.” The court held that there was a national consensus against executing juveniles, stating that 30 states did not allow the execution of juveniles, and even in the 20 where it was permissible, it was infrequent. They indicated in the last 10 years, only three states had executed a juvenile. Additionally, the Court said there was sufficient evidence that the American society viewed juveniles as less culpable than adults due to 1) the lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, 2) juveniles were more vulnerable and susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure, and 3) the character of a juvenile was not as well formed as that of an adult.
The Court concluded that just as they used Atkins (2002) to reconsider the Penry (1989) decision, they used Simmons to reconsider Stanford (1989), due to the amount of time that had lapsed between the cases. They discussed evolving standards of decency and the national and international consensus against the execution of juveniles, as well as psychological research which outlined the developmental immaturity of juveniles. They utilized similar reasoning to their reasoning in Atkins to determine it was unconstitutional to execute juveniles.
Justice O’Conner filed a dissenting opinion, stating that he was not certain a national consensus had been reached in the time since Stanford. Justice Scalia dissented as well, joined by Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas. Scalia dissented on the grounds that the argument of evolving standards of decency and national consensus were flimsy. Additionally, it was argued “Because I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution should be determined by the subjective views of five members of the Court and like-minded foreigners, I dissent.”