With the Roper v. Simmons Supreme Court ruling abolishing the execution of child offenders, the United States joins the international consensus rejecting this cruel and inhuman punishment.
Prior to the decision, the United States was one of only six countries in the world in which the juvenile death penalty was lawful. The United States has been responsible for four out of the six juvenile executions worldwide since 2002.
“The execution of child offenders is barbaric,” said Lois Whitman, director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, the United States can now hold its head up as a just society on this issue.”
The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Christopher Simmons, who was arrested at age 17 in 1993 in Fenton, Missouri, and sentenced to death for the murder of Shirley Crook. In August 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court halted Simmons’s execution as cruel and unusual in violation of the U.S. Constitution, declaring that “a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in today’s decision, found that juveniles are “categorically less culpable” than adult criminals and that “the death penalty is disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18.” The opinion also recognized that most states do not allow the execution of juvenile offenders, that states that allow these executions use this penalty infrequently, and that the trend has been to abolish the practice. As a consequence, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the execution of juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Roper v. Simmons will affect more than 70 juvenile offenders on death row in 12 states. The effort to ban the execution of juvenile offenders has led in recent years to its abolition by 19 states and the federal government; and the introduction of legislation to end the sentence in at least a half-dozen more states. Another 12 states do not permit capital punishment in any circumstances.
“Today’s ruling embraces basic standards of decency that have emerged across the country,” said Whitman. “International human rights law recognizes the fundamental difference between children and adults. U.S. constitutional law now does the same.”
International treaties and customary international law forbid the execution of child offenders, even in times of war. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstituted in the United States, 22 child offenders have been executed. With today’s decision, the juvenile death penalty remains in force in only five countries in the world—China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia has not executed a child offender since 1992 and the D.R. Congo has had a moratorium in effect since 2002. Even Iran, which has executed eight child offenders over the last 15 years, has taken legislative steps towards ending the practice.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. It has long sought to end the juvenile death penalty in the United States and joined an amicus brief in today’s Supreme Court case. The cornerstone of human rights is respect for the inherent dignity and inviolability of all human beings. These principles cannot be reconciled with the death penalty, a form of punishment that is unparalleled in its cruelty, inhumanity and finality. It is particularly unconscionable for child offenders, who should never be considered as culpable as adults and who are unique in their capacity to change.