RESPONDENT: Christopher Simmons
LOCATION: Meramec River
DOCKET NO.: 03-633
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Missouri
CITATION: 543 US 551 (2005)
GRANTED: Jan 26, 2004
ARGUED: Oct 13, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 01, 2005
James R. Layton - argued the cause for Petitioner
Seth P. Waxman - argued the cause for Respondent
Facts of the case
Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death in 1993, when he was only 17. A series of appeals to state and federal courts lasted until 2002, but each appeal was rejected. Then, in 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed Simmon's execution while the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, a case that dealt with the execution of the mentally disabled. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally disabled (or "mentally retarded" in the vernacular of the day) violated the Eighth and 14th Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment because a majority of Americans found it cruel and unusual, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to reconsider Simmons' case.
Using the reasoning from the Atkins case, the Missouri court decided, 6-to-3, that the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that executing minors was not unconstitutional, was no longer valid. The opinion in Stanford v. Kentucky had relied on a finding that a majority of Americans did not consider the execution of minors to be cruel and unusual. The Missouri court, citing numerous laws passed since 1989 that limited the scope of the death penalty, held that national opinion had changed. Finding that a majority of Americans were now opposed to the execution of minors, the court held that such executions were now unconstitutional.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government argued that allowing a state court to overturn a Supreme Court decision by looking at "evolving standards" would be dangerous, because state courts could just as easily decide that executions prohibited by the Supreme Court (such as the execution of the mentally ill in Atkins v. Virginia) were now permissible due to a change in the beliefs of the American people.
Does the execution of minors violate the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment?
Media for Roper v. SimmonsAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 13, 2004 in Roper v. Simmons
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 01, 2005 in Roper v. Simmons
John Paul Stevens:
Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the Court to announce in Ropper against Simmons.
Anthony M. Kennedy:
The present case involves a death sentence imposed on Christopher Simmons for a murder he committed at the age of 17 in the State of Missouri.
Along with another juvenile even younger than he was, Simmons broke into the home of a lady named Shirley Crook.
They bound and gagged her using the ropes and duck tape and then drove her in her own car to a railroad trestle spanning a river.
Simmons and his accomplice bound Mrs. Crook more security and threw her from the trestle drowning her in the waters below.
There was no doubt that Simmons is guilty of the offense.
There were aggravating factors of the crime making it heinous and cruel.
Missouri statute has three separate provisions for aggregation all of which the jury found complied within the sentencing phase.
And in addition to the cruel manner of the killing, it must be noted that Simmons planned it in advanced.
He told his friend one who became the accomplice that they could get away with it because they were minors.
And even as the family was learning Mrs. Crook had been murdered, Simmons was bragging about the crime.
A decade-and-a-half ago in 1989 the court held in Stanford versus Kentucky that the Constitution allows states to impose the death penalty on an offender who is 16 or 17 years old when he committed the crime.
In today's case Simmons argues that we should depart from Stanford despite its recent date just as we have departed from an earlier rule regarding execution of a mentally retarded.
Three terms ago in Atkins versus Virginia we announced the categorical rule prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded overruling the earlier case or departing from an earlier case.
Simmons says we should announce a similar categorical rule prohibiting the execution of juveniles.
The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with Simmons on that proposition and set aside his the death sentence and we now review that decision.
The Eight Amendment which applies to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
In the interpretation of its terms we have established the propriety and affirm the necessity of referring to the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
In the Atkins case we held that our evolving standards of decency now require a categorical rule against executing the mentally retarded.
As in Atkins in today's case our examination of the evolving standards of decency proceeds in two steps: First we examine the first objective indicia of consensus; second, we then must determine in the exercise of our own independent judgment whether the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for juveniles.
As to objective indicia significant parallels exist between Atkins and this case.
30 States prohibit the juvenile death penalty, and now these comprises 12 states that rejected the death penalty all together and 18 states that maintained by express provision or by judicial interpretation exclude juvenile from its reach.
Even in the 20 states without a formal prohibition on executing juveniles the practice is infrequent.
Since Stanford six states have executed the prisoners for crime committed as juveniles and in the past 10 years only three have done so.
The death sentence of the particular name defendant in the Stanford case was itself commuted by the state.
So even he was not executed.
Five states have abandoned the juvenile death penalty since Stanford and no state has lowered the minimum age for capital punishment.
As in Atkins the objective indicia of consensus in this case the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of states, the infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of the practice, provide sufficient evidence that today our society views juveniles as categorically less capable than the average criminal.
Majority of states have rejected the imposition of the death penalty on the juvenile offenders under 18 and accord with that view we now hold that consistent with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments the death penalty may not be imposed on offenders who were under 18 when they committed the crime.
Three general difference between juveniles and adult offenders diminished the capability of juveniles: First, the susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means their wrongful conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult; second juveniles compared to vulnerability and lack of control over immediate surroundings, I mean they have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences; third the realities that juveniles still struggled to define their identity means that it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidenced of an irretrievably deprived character.