The 5-4 decision strikes down laws in 19 states that allowed convicts who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes to be tried as adults and sentenced to death, depending on the seriousness of the crime. The court had previously ruled that those under the age of 16, and the mentally retarded, could not be executed.
The ruling will immediately affect the cases of some 70 underage offenders who currently sit on death row in various states.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion, cited the Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution in the court’s ruling. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law and has been used to apply provisions of the U.S. Constitution to state law.
The justices in the majority held that juveniles are immature and more easily influenced than other offenders and cannot be held as culpable for their actions as adults.
“Rejection of the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders under 18 is required by the Eighth Amendment. Capital punishment must be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,'” wrote Kennedy, citing previous case law.
The court further said a growing trend among state laws and the laws of the other countries indicate execution of offenders under 18 is inappropriate.
“The infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books; and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of the practice — provide sufficient evidence that today society views juveniles as … ‘categorically less culpable than the average criminal,'” Kennedy wrote, citing language from the court’s case regarding the execution of the mentally retarded.
Kennedy also defended the court’s consideration of the capital punishment laws of other nations. The citing of foreign law in Supreme Court decisions has been criticized by some legal scholars and applauded by others. The practice has also lead to disagreement among the justices.
“The United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile penalty,” Kennedy wrote. “It does not lessen fidelity to the Constitution or pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom.”
Kennedy was joined in the majority opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the high court upheld a decision by the Missouri state Supreme Court, which had changed the sentence of a 17-year-old offender from death to life in prison.
The case involved a youth who was convicted of planning and carrying out the robbery, abduction and murder of a neighbor. The young man and two friends broke into the woman’s house, robbed her, bound her with tape and wire, drove her to a bridge and threw her into the river below, where she drowned. The young man was 17 at the time of the crime and was sentenced to death after he turned 18.
The four-justice minority — including Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — voted to uphold the death penalty for some minors in especially heinous cases.
“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 offense,” O’Connor wrote in a dissent. “Neither the objective evidence of contemporary societal values, nor the court’s moral proportionality analysis, nor the two in tandem suffice to justify this ruling.”
In his dissent, Scalia criticized the majority for having relied on its own “subjective” interpretation of an “evolving consensus” rather than laws passed by elected legislators. Scalia argued that the court had no evidence of a national consensus because a majority of the states that allow the death penalty have not prohibited its use in the case of offenders under the age of 18.
“[T]he court says in so many words that what our people’s laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter,” Scalia wrote.
Scalia further warned that the court’s decision would relegate it to a body that attempts to determine national opinion, a role he said it is not qualified to fill.
“By what conceivable warrant can nine lawyers presume to be the authoritative conscience of the nation?” Scalia wrote.
The states that currently allow executions for people under age 18, and will be immediately affected by the court’s ruling are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas and Virginia.