Can a state whose laws call a 16-year-old too young to serve on a jury and too young even to witness an execution impose the death penalty for a crime committed at that age?
That question was put to the Supreme Court Monday as the justices again weighed whether to ban the death penalty for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment.
Only 27 of this nation’s nearly 2,200 Death Row inmates committed their crimes when they were under 18. But death penalty foes have focused on the execution of teen-agers as a symbol of what they see as the immorality of capital punishment.
Capital Punishment Backed
Since 1976, the court majority has strongly upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment. But the justices are almost evenly split on whether juveniles may be put to death.
Last June, the court threw out the death sentence for a crime committed by a 15-year-old in Oklahoma but was unable to fashion a broad ruling. On Monday, the court heard challenges to death sentences imposed in Missouri and Kentucky on youths who had been 16 and 17 when they committed murder.
Attorneys for the two young killers pointed to an array of laws that treat children as less competent and less responsible than adults. A lawyer for Heath Wilkins, 16 at the time of his crime, said that, under Missouri law, he would be deemed too young to serve on the jury that convicted him, too young to get medical care without his parents’ permission, too young to vote, too young to control his own finances and “too young and impressionable” to witness an execution.
Those laws “lend strong support to the notion that there is a national consensus against executing the young,” attorney Nancy McDerrow said. “When we draw a line between childhood and adulthood, we usually choose 18,” she said, urging the court to adopt the same rule for capital punishment.
But the high court’s conservatives disputed whether there is a need for a broad ruling, suggesting that the task should be left to state legislatures. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wondered how there could be a “national consensus” to abolish the death penalty for juveniles when legislatures in 18 states permit it. California law limits capital punishment to those who commit crimes at age 18 or older.
Considered as State Issue
Questions from four conservative justices--Byron R. White, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy--as well as Rehnquist, suggest that they believe the matter should be left to the states.
The four generally liberal members--Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens--said last year that they believe a public consensus exists to invalidate capital punishment for juveniles.
The deciding vote likely will be cast by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted last June to reject the death sentence in the case of the 15-year-old killer but who generally believes that such issues should be settled by state legislators.
Kentucky Atty. Gen. Frederic Cowan said that it would be unfair and unwise for the court to set a firm national minimum of age 18 for the death penalty.
He asked the court to consider a murder committed by a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old in which the evidence showed that the younger person was the ringleader. Because of cases like this, Cowan argued, it makes sense to let a jury consider the facts--including the youth of the defendant--in deciding who gets what punishment.
Wilkins stabbed a liquor store clerk to death near Kansas City in 1985. The Kentucky defendant, Kevin Stanford, robbed, raped and shot a young mother at a Louisville gas station in 1981.
A ruling on the two cases (Wilkins vs. Missouri, 87-6026, and Stanford vs. Kentucky, 87-5765) can be expected in July.
Other Court Actions
The court also:
--Agreed to decide whether Pennsylvania’s death penalty law is unconstitutional because it says that a sentencing jury “must” impose a verdict of death if the aggravating factors in a first-degree murder case “outweigh the mitigating circumstances” (Blystone vs. Pennsylvania, 88-6222). In 1976, the justices struck down all laws that mandate the death penalty for certain crimes.
--Allowed a public hospital to keep a chaplain on its payroll. Three atheists from Iowa contended that using taxpayers’ funds to pay for a chaplain violates the First Amendment’s ban on “an establishment of religion.” But an appeals court ruled that the chaplain’s job involved comforting patients, not promoting religion. Without comment, the justices denied a further appeal in the case (Carter vs. Broadlawns Medical Center, 88-1286).