Roper v. Simmons

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Roper v. Simmons
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 13, 2004
Decided March 1, 2005
Full case nameRoper v. Simmons
Citations543 U.S. 551 (more)
125 S. Ct. 1183; 161 L. Ed. 2d 1; 2005 U.S. LEXIS 2200; 73 U.S.L.W. 4153; 18 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 131
ArgumentOral argument
Prior historyDefendant convicted, motion for postconviction relief denied, Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Missouri; affirmed, 944 S.W. 2d 165 (Mo. 1997) (en banc), certiorari denied, 522 U.S. 953 (1997). Denial of petition for a writ of habeas corpus affirmed, 235 F. 3d 1124 (CA8), certiorari denied, 534 U. S. 924 (2001). Petition for a writ of habeas corpus granted, 112 S.W. 3d 397 (Mo. 2003) (en banc), certiorari granted, 540 U.S. 1160 (2004)
The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments make it unconstitutional to execute anyone who was under 18 when they committed their crimes. The Supreme Court of Missouri's decision was affirmed, and Stanford v. Kentucky was reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityKennedy, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
ConcurrenceStevens, joined by Ginsburg
DissentScalia, joined by Rehnquist, Thomas
Laws applied
Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings
Stanford v. Kentucky, 1989

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a person for crimes they committed before they were 18 years old. This decision affected 25 states in the country, which still allowed executions of children under age 18. Also, the decision reversed the Court's past ruling in Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), which had said that executions of children ages 16–18 were sometimes legal.[1]

History[change | change source]

The first known juvenile (child under the age of 18) to be executed in America was Thomas Granger. In 1642, he was executed at age 16 or 17 for sodomy. Between 1642 and 2016, 364 juveniles have been executed in the United States.[2][3]

George Stinney, age 14, executed in South Carolina in 1944

Until 1988, the Supreme Court had put no limits on how old a person had to be in order to be executed. This meant each state could set their own rules. In some states, the minimum age for execution was as low as 14.[3] For example, in 1944, South Carolina executed a 14-year-old boy named George Stinney in the electric chair. Stinney was the youngest person in the United States to be convicted and executed during the 20th century.[4]

Juvenile executions were much more common earlier on. However, between 1976 and 2005, twenty-two juveniles were executed.[5]

The Supreme Court started to set some limits on juvenile executions in the late 1980s. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Oklahoma that children under the age of sixteen could not be executed.[6] However, the next year, in Stanford v. Kentucky, the Court ruled that juveniles ages 16 and 17 could be given the death penalty.[1]

Background[change | change source]

Crime and trial[change | change source]

The Simmons case started in Missouri in 1993. Christopher Simmons, who was 17, made a plan to murder a woman named Shirley Crook. He brought two younger friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, into the plan.[7] They planned to break into Crook's house, steal things, tie Crook up, and throw her off a bridge. Tessmer dropped out of the plan at the last minute. However, Simmons and Benjamin broke into Crook's home, drove her to a state park, and threw her off a bridge.[7]

Simmons and Benjamin were caught and put on trial. There was a lot of evidence of what they had done. Simmons had admitted to the murder. Tessmer testifid against Simmons and said Simmons had planned the crime ahead of time.[7] (In American law, thinking about killing someone ahead of time makes the killing first degree murder.) The jury found Simmons guilty, and recommended a death sentence. The judge agreed.[7]

Appeals[change | change source]

Simmons appealed his conviction. Each appeals court which heard his case agreed with the original jury's death sentence. [8] Then the United States Supreme Court decided in Atkins v. Virginia 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that executing people with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. Encouraged, Simmons filed a new petition to the Supreme Court of Missouri. That court decided that "a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders," meaning that across the country, most Americans disagreed with executing juveniles.[8] The court ruled that executing juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. They changed Simmons' sentence from death to life in prison.[8]

The State of Missouri appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case.[7]

Decision[change | change source]

This case divided the Supreme Court. In a vote of 5-4, they ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute people who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. This means that executing these people is against the Eighth Amendment, and is unconstitutional.[7] This decision made it illegal for any state in the country to execute someone who was under the age of 18 when they committed their crime.

Minimum ages for executions before Roper v. Simmons      No capital punishment     Minimum age of 18     Minimum age of 17     Minimum age of 14–16[3]

The Court had a few reasons for making this decision. First, they argued that juveniles are not as mature as adults. They wrote that there is a lot of research showing that:[7]

  • Teenagers are more reckless and more likely to make decisions without thinking them through
  • Teenagers have less control over their behavior
  • Teenagers are more likely to do things because of peer pressure, not because they want to

The Court pointed out that most states realized these things, which is why they kept teenagers from voting, being on juries, or getting married without their parents' approval.[7]

The Court also agreed with the Missouri Supreme Court that there was a "national consensus" against executing people who committed their crimes as juveniles.[7]

Finally, the Court looked at what other countries in the world did. They wrote that:[7]

  • Only 7 countries other than the United States had ever executed juvenile offenders: Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and China
  • However, since 1990, each of these 7 countries had stopped using the death penalty for juvenile offenders
  • The United States was the only country left in the world that executed juvenile offenders

Effects[change | change source]

Effects on other death row prisoners[change | change source]

When the Supreme Court decided Roper, there were 72 other prisoners in the United States who were on death row because of crimes they committed as juveniles:[5]

State: Prisoners
on Death Row:
State: Prisoners
on Death Row:
Texas 29 Alabama 1
Mississippi 5 Arizona 4
Louisiana 4 North Carolina 4
Florida 3 South Carolina 3
Georgia 2 Pennsylvania 2
Nevada 1 Virginia 1

These people were not set free. However, their death sentences were automatically cancelled and they were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison instead.[9]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989).
  2. Siegel, Larry J.; Bartollas, Clemens (2015). Corrections Today. Cengage Learning. p. 331. ISBN 978-1305465480.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Cothern, Lynn (2000). "Juveniles and the Death Penalty" (PDF). Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  4. Bever, Lindsey (December 18, 2014). "It took 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. It took 70 years after his execution to exonerate him". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lane, Charles (March 2, 2005). "5-4 Supreme Court Abolishes Juvenile Executions". Washington Post. Washington, D.C. p. A1. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  6. Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Roper v. Simmons". The Oyez Project. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  9. Dohrn, Bernardine (2014). "United States". In Ton Liefaard & Jaap E. Doek (eds.) (ed.). Litigating the Rights of the Child: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Domestic and International Jurisprudence. Springer. p. 78. ISBN 978-9401794459.CS1 maint: extra text: editors list (link)