The court said it will reopen the question of whether executing young killers violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Currently, states that allow the death penalty may impose it on killers who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes.
The court agreed to hear the case of a Missouri man who was 17 when he robbed a woman, wrapped her head in duct tape and threw her off a railroad bridge in 1993. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that it was unconstitutional to execute people for killings committed when they were younger than 18.
Two years ago the Supreme Court abolished executions for the mentally retarded, pointing to the actions of state legislatures in establishing bans on executing the retarded as a sign of a national consensus against such action.
That 6-3 decision drew sharp dissents from the court's more conservative members, who view the Constitution as a document to be more strictly interpreted.
The court last addressed the issue of the juvenile death penalty in 1989 when it ruled that executions of those who commit their crimes at age 16 or 17 do not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The year before, the high court struck down as unconstitutional the executions of offenders age 15 or younger at the time of their crimes.
Some of the court's justices are on the record as opposing the execution of juveniles. In 2003, four members of the court's liberal bloc issued an unusual statement calling it "shameful" to execute juvenile killers.
"The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote then. He was joined by justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Currently, 38 states and the federal government have the death penalty. Sixteen states and the federal government have an age minimum of at least 18 for capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Five states have set age 17 as the minimum while the other 17 states use age 16 as the minimum age.
The case will probably be decided next term as the court's calendar for oral arguments for this term is apparently filled through April.