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Missouri high court overturns ‘juvenile’ death sentence

Associated Press, USA
Aug. 27, 2003
Paul Sloca
newstribune.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday August 29, 2003

Some Missouri lawmakers claim the state Supreme Court went too far when it tossed out a law that allows for the execution of juveniles under 18 and suggested that politics may have played a part in the decision.

In a 4-3 decision, the state’s highest court ruled that it is unconstitutional to apply death sentences to people younger than 18 at the time of their crimes. The court based its opinion on a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded as unconstitutionally cruel.

As with the mentally retarded, a national consensus is developing that the execution of juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment, the Missouri court said in the case of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he killed a woman a decade ago. He was sentenced to death.

The court’s decision runs counter to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Missouri case that upheld states’ rights to execute people as young as 16.

Missouri law currently allows convicted murderers as young 16 to be sentenced to death, and attempts by lawmakers to increase the age to 18 have failed in recent years.

Judge William Ray Price wrote in his dissenting opinion Tuesday that the court’s decision flies in the face of laws already on the books.

“Although this statute is subject to serious controversy, it is the enacted will of the people of Missouri and must be enforced unless it is a violation of either the Missouri of the United States Constitutions,” said Price.

Sen. Harold Caskey, an attorney and longtime death penalty supporter, said Wednesday that the Missouri Supreme Court had clearly taken sides on death penalty cases.

“I think the Supreme Court is becoming an activist body because they have decided that the death penalty is probably not something they would favor so they are taking every opportunity to minimize the death penalty,” said Caskey, D-Butler. “I don’t think it reflects the general will of the populace. The court had ignored what the people want.”

Also concerned about the court’s decision was Sen. Matt Bartle, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bartle said there has been a shift in the court politically now that four of the seven judges were appointed by Democratic governors Mel Carnahan and Bob Holden.

“After years of Carnahan and Holden appointees, there was a design to move the court to the left and move the court away from capital punishment,” said Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit. “If the seven judges on the Supreme Court want to change policy, they need to run for the Legislature.”

Since March 1, 2002, when Democratic appointees took the majority, the Supreme Court has ordered three executions, reversed four capital convictions and reversed five death sentences.

Democrats on the bench are Chief Justice Ronnie White, Michael Wolff, Laura Denvir Stith and Richard Teitelman while Republicans are represented by Price, Duane Benton and Stephen Limbaugh Jr. In the early to mid-1990s, the Missouri Supreme Court consisted solely of judges appointed by Republican Govs. John Ashcroft or Kit Bond, so philosophical splits were not as likely.

In fact, White’s nomination to the federal judgeship was blocked by then U.S. Sen. Ashcroft who argued that White was soft on the death penalty. White’s nomination was later defeated.

Steve Easton, an associate law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said it’s not surprising that philosophical splits show up on courts.

“It is not unusual for courts to have splits along the lines of the political parties of the governors or presidents who appointed them,” said Easton, who teaches criminal law and procedure, among other things. “We sometimes want to pretend that judges cease to have political tendencies once they get on the court, but judges are human beings.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Ed Quick said the court had made sense of what has become an increasingly complex issue not only in Missouri but across the country. Earlier this year, Quick, of Liberty, sponsored a measure to raise the age for executions to 18 that failed.

“I truly appreciate the decision and I thought that it was a step forward in the right direction,” Quick said. “My problem with executing people under 18 is I think they basically are not mature enough before that age to make logical adjustments.”

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has said he would appeal the state court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Quick said that’s where be believes the issue ultimately should be decided.

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