Joining the rest of civilization

The Supreme Court brings the U.S. out from the cold, ruling that juvenile execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Topics:

The United States bowed to international and domestic pressure Tuesday, becoming the last country in the world officially to abolish the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 when they committed murder. The Supreme Court ruling will spare up to 70 inmates who are on death row for committing murders while aged 16 or 17, and it removes a source of friction between the United States and Europe. The European Union welcomed the decision, but said it “opposes capital punishment under all circumstances.”

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said that with the ruling the United States had joined “the community of nations.” “The Supreme Court decision confirms recent, compelling scientific research findings that the capacity for curbing impulsiveness, using sound judgment and exercising self-control is much less developed in adolescents than in adults,” Carter said in a statement.

The ruling, passed by a 5-4 majority, was made in the case of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 in 1993 when a woman died after he threw her off a bridge in Missouri. The swing vote came from Justice Anthony Kennedy, who normally sides with the conservatives on the bench.

In giving his reasons, Kennedy explicitly cited the role of world opinion. “It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime,” he wrote, adding that there was an emerging national consensus against juvenile execution.

You Might Also Like

Dissenting from the majority view, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that foreign pressure should play no role in the decision. He said the Constitution should not be determined by “the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners.”

The judges ruled that juvenile execution conflicted with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“To decide what is cruel and unusual you don’t look at what was happening 200 years ago. You look at evolving standards of decency. In that specific area, what is going on in the rest of the world is relevant,” said Stephen Harper, an expert on juvenile law at the University of Miami. “Clearly, international opinion had some effect on the court.”

Capital punishment still has majority support in the United States. However, this is the second significant judicial limit imposed in recent years. In 2002 the execution of convicts with learning difficulties was abolished. The decision brings the United States into line with the rest of the world. The execution of juveniles is explicitly banned in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country except the United States and Somalia, which has no recognized government.

Of the 39 executions of child offenders recorded by Amnesty International since 1990, 19 took place in the United States. The other countries include Iran, China, Congo, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, but the United States was the last government to condone and defend the practice officially. Iran has formulated a law banning such executions, but it has not yet been put into practice.

“Until today the U.S. was the only country that officially executed child offenders; today’s ruling finally brings the U.S. out from the cold on this issue,” Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s U.K. director, said in a statement. “The death penalty does nothing to deter crime and is a human rights violation that brings shame on those countries that use it. In addition, innocent people are always at risk of execution.”

In 1988 the Supreme Court outlawed the execution of anyone 15 or under. At the time of Tuesday’s ruling, 15 states had death penalties for offenders as young as 16, while four had a minimum age of 17.

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>