Supreme Court Questions Juvenile Death Penalty

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court questioned on Wednesday whether world opinion against the death penalty for juveniles should influence its decision on the constitutionality of executing those who committed murder at age 16 or 17.

The high court considered arguments on whether juvenile offenders should be eligible for the death penalty when they are too young to vote, serve in the military, get married or sit on a jury.

James Layton, the state solicitor in Missouri, argued the legislature, and not the courts, should be the one to decide the youngest age that a murderer can get the death penalty.

He said the decision on whether the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment applied to juvenile offenders should be based on what happens in this country, and not on world opinion.

Seth Waxman, an attorney arguing on behalf of a convicted killer who was sentenced to death for a murder he committed at 17, argued a national consensus has emerged against the juvenile death penalty, just like the one against executing mentally retarded criminals.

“The line, 18, is one that has been drawn by society,” said Waxman, who served as the government’s chief advocate before the Supreme Court during the Clinton administration.

Waxman told the justices that Somalia was the only other country besides the United States that has not condemned the juvenile death penalty.

Ban urged for child executions

Amnesty International has launched a two-year campaign to ban the execution of child offenders worldwide.

“In a report issued on Jan. 21, 2004, Amnesty International documents executions of such offenders in eight countries since 1990: China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America, and Yemen. Most of these countries have now changed their laws to ban the use of death penalty against children, leaving the USA as the only country which openly acknowledges executing child offenders and which claims for itself the right to do so.

The USA promotes itself as global human rights champion, yet it accounts for 13 of the 19 known executions of child offenders reported since 1998″ Amnesty International continued, “As other violators drop away, the United States could be said to be the least progressive country in the world on this issue.”
Amnesty International

Note: The publishers
of Apologetics Index, which includes Religion News Blog, are members of Amnesty International. They oppose the death penalty.

As evidence of the growing consensus against such executions in the United States, Waxman said only three states during the past 10 years have carried out an execution for crimes committed at age 16 or 17.


He cited scientific evidence that juveniles lack maturity and have deficits in reasoning, judgment and controlling impulses. Waxman said 18 was considered by society as the defining line between childhood and adulthood.

The high court appeared closely divided on the issue, and the outcome could depend on Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, who often cast the decisive votes on the closely divided court.

The high court last addressed the issue 15 years ago when it ruled by a 5-4 vote that executions of those who commit murder at age 16 or 17 do not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional executions of offenders age 15 or younger at the time of their crimes.

Opponents of capital punishment have said there is enough evidence now for the Supreme Court to change its position and declare the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional for those 16 and 17. It changed its position two years ago in barring the executions of mentally retarded criminals.

O’Connor, in her only question, said of the juvenile death penalty, “It’s about the same consensus that existed in the retardation case.”

Kennedy expressed concern about setting the age at 18. He said that in gangs those who are 16 or 17 might be persuaded to do the killings if the juvenile death penalty was struck down. “I’m very concerned about that,” he said.

“If we rule against you, then the deterrent remains,” Kennedy told Waxman.

Kennedy asked Layton whether the world opinion against the juvenile death penalty might be a factor in considering whether it was an “unusual” punishment.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether what happens abroad might be relevant to the Supreme Court, but that it would not control the outcome.

The court is expected to rule by the middle of next year.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Reuters, USA
Oct. 13, 2004
James Vicini
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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday October 14, 2004.
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