In a dissent authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, four of the high court’s liberal justices voiced their disagreement with the decision to deny the review, calling the execution of young offenders “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civil society.”
The case involved a petition for writ of habeas corpus by Kevin Nigel Stanford, who was convicted of killing a woman by shooting her in the face and again in the head after raping her during a gasoline station robbery in Kentucky in 1981. Stanford, now 39, was 17 years old when he committed the crime.
Stanford’s lawyers argued his execution not only violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but also broke the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty that bans imposing the death penalty on those who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes. The United States signed the treaty in 1992, but reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders, the only country to do so.
An earlier appeal by Stanford led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1989, when the high court decided that imposing the death penalty on those who committed their crimes at age 16 or 17 does not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In his dissent, Stevens quoted comments from Justice William Brennan’s dissent to the 1989 decision, including his laundry list of other restrictions imposed on people under age 18, saying that Brennan’s objections are “just as forceful and correct as they were in 1989.”
“Neuroscientific evidence of the last few years has revealed that adolescent brains are not fully developed, which often leads to erratic behaviors and thought processes in that age group,” said Stevens, who was joined in his dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer. “We should put an end to this shameful practice,” he said.
Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, 16 states and the federal government have set a minimum age of 18 to receive capital punishment. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are currently 83 inmates on death row that were sentenced as juveniles, composing some two percent of the death row population.
In another death penalty decision, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by a man convicted of murder in Florida who claimed that the more than 27 years he has spent on death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate the Constitution.
Charles Foster, whose execution has been delayed twice due to court appeals on mitigating factors from his original trial, was re-sentenced to death in 1993 for the 1975 murder of a 68-year-old Ohio tourist.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have accepted Foster’s case, citing that “death row’s inevitable anxieties and uncertainties have been sharpened by the issuance of two death warrants and three judicial reprieves.”
Justice Clarence Thomas answered Breyer’s dissent, saying Foster could have ended the stresses of death row by submitting to his execution and dismissed Foster’s claim as “meritless.”
“Petitioner could have long ended his ‘anxieties and uncertainties’ … by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution,” Thomas said.