Supreme Court to Consider Banning Execution of Teens

The Supreme Court, which two years ago abolished executions for the mentally retarded, said Monday it will now consider ending the execution of killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.

The court said it will reopen the question of whether executing very 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 case, which will probably be decided in the court’s next term, continues the high court’s reexamination of who belongs on death row and how the death penalty is carried out. The court’s calendar for the current term is apparently full, with oral arguments scheduled through April.

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 state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to send people to their deaths for killings committed when they were younger than 18.

The 4-3 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Christopher Simmons, and sentenced him to life in prison instead.

Four Supreme Court justices are on record opposing the execution of very young killers, but the court has nonetheless stayed on the sidelines of a national and international debate about the practice. The court has turned aside several recent appeals brought by death row inmates challenging their executions for juvenile crimes. The court did not comment in agreeing to hear the issue now, in an appeal brought by state officials.

While I’m personally a little squeamish about executing people for crimes they committed at 17, this strikes me as a decision properly left to the legislature as to the broader public policy and to judges and juries as to particular cases.

The issue has been there before. The high court upheld juvenile executions in 1989, and will now consider reversing that ruling.

Only the United States and a handful of other countries allow execution of juvenile killers, and death penalty opponents argue that such executions violate not only the Constitution but an international treaty signed by the United States.

Currently, 17 states that allow the death penalty for other people prohibit it for those who were under 18 when they committed their crimes. The federal government also prohibits the practice for juveniles prosecuted in federal court.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are now 82 inmates on death row nationwide for crimes committed when they were under 18. States have put to death 22 such inmates in recent years.

So, as recently as eleven years ago, the Court ruled that the 8th Amendment, ratified in 1791, did not preclude teen execution. The Constitution has not subsequently been amended. And, in any case, this is an exceedingly rare circumstance, apparently happening two or three times a year nationwide.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Norbizness says:

    The only other countries on the globe that execute children under 18 are Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

    Regardless of the jurisprudential arguments, being in that “class” 2-3 per year is still 2-3 times too many.

  2. James Joyner says:


    We’re one of the only countries in the world that still has capital punishment, period. But it’s a practice firmly enshrined in the 5th and 14th Amendments.

  3. bryan says:

    Hmmm. I don’t necessarily classify a 17-year-old as a “child” on par with, say, a 12-year-old. There’s nothing magical about the age of 18 except as a demographic statistic that helps when writing laws (you can’t vote until you’re 18). But an 18-year-old -plus-one-day is hardly any different developmentally than a 17-year-old-plus-364-days.