By Marc H. Morial
National Urban League
The slow narrowing of the legal justification of the death penalty in America
In early March a bitterly-divided U.S. Supreme Court barred the use of capital
punishment against convicted murderers who were older than 15 but younger than 18 at
the time they committed their crimes.
The ruling means the rescinding of the death sentence for 72 inmates in twelve
states who were juveniles when they committed their crimes; the harshest punishment
they can now receive is life without the possibility of parole. And it erases the stigma
the United States carried as one of only two nations in the world (the other being
Somalia) whose laws upheld capital punishment for juveniles.
The Court in 1988 had barred the execution of convicted murderers who killed
when they were younger than 16, but a year later upheld capital punishment for those
who were 16 and 17 years olds.
The 5-to-4 current decision involved a case from Missouri, Roper v. Simmons,
that resulted from a horrible crime. The defendant, Christopher Simmons, 17 years old
at the time, burglarized a home with an accomplice, bound and gagged the wife and
mother who was home alone at the time, drove her to a nearby state park, and threw
her from a bridge spanning a river to drown in the waters below. He was arrested within
days, after bragging to friends about the killing.
Few words exist which can adequately condemn the terrible act Christopher
Simmons committed or support the life sentence he deserves.
But the National Urban League agrees with the Supreme Court's decision in
striking down capital punishment for juveniles. We agree with it in overarching terms
because we have always viewed the penalty as being morally wrong and in practical
terms in the United States irredeemably tainted with racial and class bias.
The Court majority of Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen G. Bryer, David
Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pointedly noted "the
overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty" and the
fact that although nineteen states in the U.S. have laws permitting the execution of
juveniles, only three—Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia—had executed juveniles in the
Furthermore, the Court's majority said its ruling in this case was a logical step
forward from its 6-to-3 ruling of 2002 prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded
Drawing upon psychological studies cited three particular reasons as bulwarks of
their stance: That those under 18 lack maturity and a developed sense of responsibility,
which "often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions;" that they are
"more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure, and
thus have less control of their emotions and actions; and that the "traits of juveniles are
more transitory, less fixed" than those of adults.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence
Thomas, and Sandra Day O'Connor dissented in bitter words from the majority ruling.
Experts differ as to whether the series of recent rulings by the Court narrowing
capital punishment foreshadow its eventual abolition or, instead, represent a "finetuning"
of the law in order to solidify its legality.
In our view, however, the fine-tuning should inevitably lead to abolition—for moral
reasons, yes; and also because the very attempt to apply capital punishment is
For example, the death penalty is overwhelmingly disproportionately imposed
upon the poor—nearly 90 percent of those facing capital charges cannot afford their
own attorney—and race plays a stunning role in its imposition.
While 50 percent of all murder victims are white, 84 percent of the victims in
death-penalty cases are white. Since the death penalty was re-imposed in 1976,
blacks, less than 13 percent of the population as a whole, have made up 35 percent of
those executed, and are 43 percent of those now on the death rows nationwide, and 67
percent of death-row inmates in federal prisons. Since 1976, 11 whites have been
executed for killing blacks; 144 blacks have been executed for killing whites.
Finally, the fatal "inevitability of caprice and mistake" in administering the death
penalty that the late constitutional scholar, Charles L. Black, Jr., pointed to has been
underscored in recent years by the uncovering of egregious mistakes made in the
convictions of men already on death row by lawyers and law students working in
organized projects and, in some instances, law officials themselves who became
convinced a wrong had been done.
Thus far, 119 men on death row have been released from prison because, for
some, their guilt at trial had not been proved, and, for others, they were found to have
been completely innocent of the crime they were sentenced to death for.
In all instances, the developments which led to their freedom came years—in
some cases, decades—after they were to have been executed.
The death penalty is inherently unjust, inherently unfairly applied; and the
Supreme Court's decision barring it for juveniles is a step in the right direction. This
issue is a matter of life and death.
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