Virginia is one of three states that still execute juvenilesIn a sweeping but narrowly decided ruling the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that executions of persons under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling in Roper v. Simmons, on a 5-4 vote, comes less than three years after Atkins v. Virginia in which the same court banned the death penalty for mentally retarded persons.
“This is the kind of case that is more than the sum of its parts,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “It is a resounding message about progress, civilization and humanity. When the Supreme Court finally prohibits the death penalty altogether, we will look back on this case as one of the cornerstones of that historic moment,”
As in the Atkins case, the Supreme Court decided the juvenile death penalty case less on legal precedents than on the prevailing attitudes of our culture. Referring to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” the court noted that most states have already banned the death penalty for juveniles and that of the twenty that still maintain such laws only a few actually continue to execute juveniles.
Over the last ten years, only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have continued to execute juveniles.
“For most of the United States, the Supreme Court’s decision is simply an affirmation of what people already knew -- that executing juveniles is a barbaric practice that serves no beneficial societal purpose,” added Willis. “But in Virginia, where executions of juveniles still occur, the decision has a real impact, and we will finally put an end to this uncivilized custom.”
The Supreme Court not only determined that there was a consensus against the juvenile death penalty in the United States, but also said that international opinion is overwhelmingly against the practice. Noting that the number of nations that allow juvenile executions has dwindled in recent years, the court wrote, “In sum, it is fair to say that the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty.”
The high court also based it opinions on growing knowledge of the juvenile psyche, noting research showing that juveniles are less culpable than adults who commit the same crimes.
Today’s case overturns Stanford v. Kentucky, a 1989 Supreme Court decision upholding the juvenile death penalty.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022