Roper v. Simmons

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LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Roper v. Simmons.


Roper v. Simmons presents the Supreme Court with two questions: whether or not the execution of those who were sixteen or seventeen at the time of a crime is "cruel and unusual" and whether the lower courts may analyze evolving standards in order to determine the former. The Court will likely rely upon the principles in Atkins to determine whether or not to overturn its conflicting decision in Stanford v. Kentucky (492 U.S. 361 (1989)). Legislative activity since Stanford has significantly changed, and this change is bolstered by the views of germane organizations and the decreasing number of states imposing the death penalty on juvenile offenders. SeeId. The Court will thus determine whether the weight of this evidence is enough to overcome the goals served by the death penalty.

Oral argument: 
October 13, 2004
Court below: 

Christopher Simmons was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for first degree murder for a crime that he committed at age 17. He appealed as of right to the Missouri Supreme Court, which exercises exclusive jurisdiction in death penalty case. In 1997, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and the sentence. State v. Simmons, 944 S.W.2d 165, 169 (Mo. 1997). On his initial appeal, Simmons could not argue that his youth prohibited his execution because the United States Supreme Court held in 1989 that there was no national consensus against the execution of young adults who were sixteen or seventeen years old at the time of their crimes, and that, as a result, executing juveniles was not cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. See Simmons v. Roper, 112 S.W.3d 397, 399 (Mo. 2003) (en banc) (discussing Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989)). The Missouri Supreme Court thus affirmed the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Missouri on both the conviction and death sentence. See id.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court reversed Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989), which held that a national consensus did not exist against execution of the mentally retarded. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). In Atkins, the Supreme Court concluded that such a consensus had developed in the thirteen years since Penry and that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 321. Hoping that the Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins might signal a parallel shift in the Court's view toward the execution of juvenile offenders, Simmons appeared before the Missouri Supreme Court again in 2003 on a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that a national consensus opposing the execution of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old offenders had emerged since Stanford v. Kentucky. Simmons, 112 S.W.3d at 399. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, reasoning that "the Supreme Court would today hold such executions are prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." Id. at 400.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Simmons' case in order to address two specific issues. First, the Court will consider whether a lower court may contradict a previous ruling by the Supreme Court. Specifically, the Court will decide whether it was permissible for the Missouri Supreme Court to conclude that the execution of juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eighth Amendment, in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court's ruling in Stanford v. Kentucky. Second, the Supreme Court will decide for itself whether a national consensus now opposes the execution of offenders younger than eighteen years and, therefore, whether the practice now violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

1. Once the Supreme Court holds that a particular punishment is not "cruel and unusual" and thus barred by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, can a lower court reach a contrary decision based on its own analysis of evolving standards?

2. Is the imposition of the death penalty on a person who commits a murder at age seventeen "cruel and unusual," and thus barred by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?


The first documented teenager put to death in the United States was young Thomas Grauger, hanged in 1684 for having sexual intercourse with a horse and a cow. History of the Juvenile Death Penalty: Key Events in the United States, Wash. Post, July 19, 1988, at Z15. Since then, American society has struggled with the question of whether a teenager is capable of possessing criminal culpability warranting the death penalty. Often, the juvenile death penalty involves arguments of morality. Is it right to execute a juvenile? Does the juvenile death penalty stand in conflict with the standards of decency in today's society? These questions circle around in an increasingly global society, as America remains one of the last countries with a juvenile death penalty. Thus, the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons will significantly impact not only society's young people, but also America's position and status in the world.

One important factor in the Court's analysis will be whether teenagers are fully capable of understanding the wrongfulness and the consequences of their actions. Opponents of the juvenile death penalty argue that teenagers can likely be rehabilitated. See Sasha Abramsky, Taking Juveniles Off Death Row, 15 Am. Prospect, July 1, 2004, at A16. Scientists had previously thought that brain development was complete by three or four years old. See id. Studies have since shown that brain development continues through adolescence and sometimes into early adulthood. See id. A small area of the frontal lobe of the brain, the part that controls reason, is now thought to develop last and may directly affect criminal culpability. See Paul Davies, Psychiatrists Question Death For Teen Killers, Wall St. J., May 26, 2004, at B1. Thus, these new studies suggest that teenagers may not understand the criminal qualities of their actions and arguably should not be punished as if they do. Proponents of the juvenile death penalty criticize these studies as "junk science" put forth by biased individuals using science to promote their political ends. See id. Indeed, they argue that teenagers have the ability to realize their actions are wrong, evidenced by the fact that teens often try to cover up and destroy evidence to avoid getting caught. See id.

In addition to psychological debates about the criminal culpability of teenagers, the Court will likely examine national trends in the United States. These trends show that the states, even those with a juvenile death penalty, are extremely reluctant to execute a minor. While seven people in the Unites States were sent to death row in 2000 for crimes they committed as minors, only two juvenile offenders were sentenced to death in 2003. Sasha Abramsky, Taking Juveniles Off Death Row, 15 Am. Prospect, July 1, 2004, at A16. Since 1976, only seven states have actually executed a juvenile, and many states that allow the execution of juvenile offenders have not executed a juvenile in decades. Id. For example, Florida has not sentenced a juvenile offender to death since 1954; Arizona has utilized the juvenile death penalty since 1934; and Alabama has not executed a juvenile since 1961. Id. These trends reflect the strong public uneasiness with the juvenile death penalty, present even in states where the juvenile death penalty still legally exists. Id.

A decision that the juvenile death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment may deter future teen criminal acts. Proponents of the juvenile death penalty argue that if juveniles know they may be executed for murder, then they will be less likely to commit the crimes. See, e.g., Paul Reidinger, The Death Row Kids, 75 A.B.A. J. 78, 81 (1989). For example, in Roper, Christopher Simmons told his friends they would get off because they were minors. Simmons v. Roper, 112 S.W.3d 397, 399 (Mo. 2003) (en banc). If Simmons had initially known he could face the death penalty for his crime, perhaps he would have chosen not to go through with his plan.

However, the Court's decision to uphold the practice could also contribute to the United States' isolationism because many countries view the juvenile death penalty as a violation of human rights. See Connie de la Vega, Going It Alone, Am. Prospect, July 1, 2004, at A22. Indeed, most of Western Europe has abolished the death penalty and each country that hopes to join the European Union ("EU") must concurrently join the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which, among other things, forbids the death penalty. See id. In Roper, the EU and twenty-three other nations have filed a brief supporting the Missouri Supreme Court's decision that the juvenile death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. See Brief of Amici Curiae the European Union and Members of the International Community in Support of Respondent, 124 S.Ct. 2198 (No. 03-633) (2004). Thus, upholding the juvenile death penalty could damage the United States' credibility in the international arena. It might become more difficult for the United States to advocate democracy and human rights in other countries if many nations perceive the Unites States as disregarding those norms itself. In the current global climate, United States ability to remain allied with other nations is increasingly important.

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court strikes down the juvenile death penalty, the arbitrary line (age eighteen) separating juveniles from adults may potentially create unfair situations. For example,

One may envision a scenario in which two individuals, one aged eighteen and one month and the other aged seventeen and nine months, commit a grisly murder. If Stanford were to be overturned, the eighteen-year-old would be eligible for the death penalty in a state which allows for capital punishment, while the seventeen-year-old, who may have more responsibility for the murder, and thus more deserving of punishment, would be exempt from death. It certainly seems unfair that an individual who commits a heinous crime may escape death merely because he has yet to reach his eighteenth birthday, while another individual possessing equal, or even less culpability, may receive a death sentence.

Audra M. Bogdanski, Relying on Atkins v. Virginia as Precedent to Find the Juvenile Death Penalty Unconstitutional: Perpetuating Bad Precedent? 87 Marq. L. Rev. 603, 634 (Spring 2004). Thus, proponents of the juvenile death penalty argue that case-by-case analysis is the only just method. Although this may be judicially inefficient, it would alleviate distrust caused by an arbitrary bright line set at age eighteen.

In this case, the Supreme Court will also address an important issue of state versus federal judicial power. Specifically, the Court will determine whether the Missouri Supreme Court may base its decision on its prediction of what the United States Supreme Court would or should hold. States are historically considered the experimental zones of the country. Thus, it is important for them to be at the forefront of policy. It is equally important for states to preserve some of their autonomy. Each state has its own culture, ideals, and policy goals to implement. The Supreme Court's decision in Roper will affect how far states can deviate from federal rulings. Although the Missouri Supreme Court did not explicitly violate the Supreme Court's ruling, the Supreme Court might use the Roper case to reprimand the state court for asserting the direction in which it thought a federal constitutional issue should go. On the other hand, the Supreme Court would be unable to overrule itself if state courts could not point out deficiencies in the Supreme Court's earlier rulings and alter the Court of changes in societal needs. Important rulings involving segregation, voting, and the death penalty itself have been the results of the Supreme Court reevaluating its earlier outlook in response to lower court rulings.