Among other crucial matters this session, the US Supreme Court is expected to determine the legality of executing juvenile offenders with its decision in the Roper v. Simmons case.
Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, seven states have executed a combined twenty-two juvenile offenders nationwide. In recent years, however, the juvenile death penalty has met growing resistance, and polls consistently show that roughly 70 percent of the US population opposes the practice.
Internationally, juvenile executions are even more reviled. According to Amnesty International, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only other countries in the world that still sanction the execution of juvenile offenders. Moreover, the practice directly violates numerous international human rights agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every member of the UN General Assembly except for the United States and Somalia.
The US Supreme Court last reviewed the issue in 1989, when its decision in Stanford v. Kentucky set the minimum eligibility age for the death penalty at 16. But since then, eight states have established a minimum age of 18–raising the total number of states that ban juvenile executions to thirty-one; the District of Columbia, the federal government, and the US military also use 18 as the minimum age.
In October 2002 four Supreme Court Justices expressed their opposition to executing juvenile offenders in a dissent with the majority over the taking of a case that would have allowed them to review the issue. “The practice of executing [juvenile] offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the four. “We should put an end to this shameful practice.” However, at least one more vote is needed for a decision in favor of Christopher Simmons, the juvenile offender whose case made its way to the High Court after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile death penalty violates the US Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In anticipation of the Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, The Nation asked four people deeply involved in the fight against juvenile executions in the United States to share their thoughts on the issue. Those four people are Nanon Williams, a writer and death-row inmate in Texas, convicted and sentenced for a crime committed when he was 17 years old; Bill Pelke, a retired steelworker whose grandmother was murdered in Indiana in 1985 by a 15-year-old girl who later received a death sentence; Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; and Steve Presson, an Oklahoma lawyer who represented both Sean Sellers and Scott Hain, juvenile offenders who were executed in 1999 and 2003, respectively.