After 15 years, the Supreme Court is revisiting the issue of how old a murderer must be to receive a death sentence for his crime. The Court is reviewing the case of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he killed a woman in 1993 by hogtying her and throwing her into a river to drown.
The court ruled in 1988 that states could not execute those younger than 16 when they commit murder, but did not prohibit death sentences for those who are 16 or 17. The decision was based on the court’s view that there was no national consensus against executing older teens. The Court upheld the ruling in 1989.
A total of 71 inmates currently on death row committed the murders that put them there before they were 18. Amid many high-profile cases exonerating Death Row inmates, even some justices have voiced their concern that the death penalty might not be fairly administered.
“In recent years, the court has been concerned about the arbitrariness of the way the death penalty is imposed,” says Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who has fought to end the death penalty for juveniles.
In 2002, the Supreme Court reversed its ruling and ruled unconstitutional the execution of mentally retarded people. It said the nation had reached a consensus that such executions amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th amendment. Some anticipate that a similar reversal could take place deciding the fate of murderers under the age of 18.