Supreme Court to Consider Death Penalty for Teens
WASHINGTON — Christopher Simmons was eager to kill. As a 17-year-old Missouri high school student, Simmons told his friends just how he'd do it: He would find someone to burglarize, tie him up and ultimately push him off a bridge.
On Sept. 8, 1993, Simmons and a friend broke into Shirley Crook's mobile home in Fenton, Mo., bound her with duct tape, put her in the back of her minivan and drove for more than an hour before stopping to throw her, still alive and bound, into the Meramec River.
A jury convicted Simmons of capital murder in 1994. Last year, Missouri's Supreme Court ruled that executing Simmons would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment because of his age at the time of the crime.
The ruling followed the constitutional reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in banning the execution of the mentally disabled in 2002. At the time, 30 states had already abolished capital punishment for the mentally handicapped.
Simmons’ fate now lies in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. This fall, it will revisit the constitutionality of executing teen-aged murderers.
The nation's highest court last addressed the issue in 1988 and 1989, ruling the death penalty out for offenders who were under 16 when their crimes were committed but allowing it for those 16 and 17.
Since then, five states have banned the execution of young offenders. Today, only 22 of the 38 states with a death penalty allow it for minors.
Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, is the only jurisdiction in the country with executions currently scheduled for those who committed capital murder while under age 18. Last month, a Houston judge ruled that in March the state will execute a killer who was 17 at the time of his offense, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to examine the constitutionality of executing young offenders.
In 2002, 71 people in 13 states were executed — 33 of them in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Texas has a horrible reputation,” said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, one of the most outspoken American bishops against the death penalty. “The fact that they would execute a child just compounds the horror of this brutal assault upon human life that is a gift from God. To inflict capital punishment on children seems barbaric and lacking an understanding of children and their abilities at a tender age to make decisions — even though they've done terrible things.”
Father Ron Cloutier, director of correctional ministries for the Diocese of Houston-Galveston, has daily contact with prisoners — including those on death row. He says once they reach their mid-20s, most young killers are extremely remorseful for their crimes.
“For the most part, those I work with on death row were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they killed,” he explained. “They've had years to sober up and mature. When you talk to someone who committed a crime when they were 16, they were still fighting their hormones and did a lot of foolish things. When they're older, they learn that there are different ways to express that rebellion.”
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Catholic, told the Register that capital punishment is reserved for the most brutal killers and is morally appropriate even for teens.
“In the Catholic faith, the age of reason is age 7. So you can commit venial or mortal sin at a very tender age,” he explained. “With someone who is well past puberty, who is certainly capable of making informed decisions about his or her conduct, if those individuals commit premeditated killing with malice, with viciousness, the death penalty in extreme cases is appropriate — and quite truthfully is appropriate under Catholic moral teaching.”
Keating raised the example of Sean Sellers who, as a 16-year-old, murdered a convenience-store clerk. Six months later, he murdered his mother and stepfather. Of the 54 people executed while Keating was governor of Oklahoma from 1995-2003, Sellers was the only young killer.
“Here's an individual who had an opportunity with reflection and with premeditation to repeat the killing that he did to an innocent convenience-store clerk who was sipping a cup of coffee when he shot him in the head,” Keating said. “Sellers knew exactly what he was doing, planned it and executed it with a mature mind and evil heart. I think individuals like that should forfeit their lives.”
While the Church recognizes that legitimate state authorities have an obligation to protect society from aggressors, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says capital punishment may be used only “if this is the only way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II wrote that “today, … as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
‘If Clergy Speak’
Kevin Mannix, a Catholic attorney who ran for governor of Oregon two years ago, says the death penalty should remain an option for U.S. juries.
“In an existential sense, the Holy Father has said that our prison system and justice system is sophisticated enough to protect society with life imprisonment,” he said. “I differ with that interpretation of our system. I think there is room for a moral determination that a person is so dangerous to society that the system isn't safe enough, other than the death penalty, to assure its protection.”
James Megivern, a Catholic whose 1995 book, The Death Penalty: A Historical and Theological Survey, chronicles the history of capital punishment, says U.S. Catholics are evenly split on the issue.
“One of the studies indicated that [Catholics] are overwhelmingly opposed to [capital punishment] when it is opposed from the pulpit,” he said. “If clergy are informed and willing to speak out, people — especially the younger generation — understand what was being said. John Paul II has put the whole question back in terms of the Gospel. Could you see Jesus operating a guillotine?”
Bishop Fiorenza agrees.
“There is a mind-set here that if you're guilty of a capital crime, you have to pay with your life,” he said. “Thank God, the attitude is changing. We see great progress in that young people are now becoming opposed to capital punishment. In time, I think a majority of people will be in opposition to it. It's only then that the politicians will come around.”
But legal experts are uncertain how the Supreme Court will rule when its decision comes down this fall. Cloutier, who points out that the United States is one of the few countries that executes young people, says despite the high court's current 5-4 split in favor of the death penalty, it's hard to predict how it will decide.
“There's a lot of public sentiment that a lot of innocent people are being executed,” he said. “I think the mind of the court is changing slightly. That might not have been the case a few years ago.”
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
- February 22-28, 2004