WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether the Constitution forbids the execution of killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, the latest step in the court's reexamination of capital punishment in America.
The high court could ban the practice, as four justices have urged, or it could reaffirm earlier rulings that allowed states to decide for themselves whether to make 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for execution.
The case has repercussions in Missouri, where one teenager has been sentenced to death.
Christopher Simmons was 17 when he and an accomplice broke into the Fenton, Mo., home of Shirley Crook in 1993, then bound her with tape, electrical wire and the belt from her bathrobe and pushed her off a railroad bridge to drown.
Prosecutors said Simmons told teenage friends that they would get away with it because of their young ages. In 1994, a Cape Girardeau jury convicted Simmons of first-degree murder and recommended he be sentenced to death. He was scheduled to be executed in 2002, but the execution was stayed after Simmons sought a writ of habeas corpus.
Missouri's highest court overturned Simmons' death sentence last year. He now is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court's answer, expected in the term that begins next fall, follows landmark decisions two years ago that banned the execution of the mentally retarded and required that juries, not judges, be the final arbiters of who is sent to death row.
The latest case turns on the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments," just as the ruling did in the case involving mentally retarded killers.
"It's not to say that juveniles should not be held accountable for their crimes, but teenagers at that age are less mature, less able to assess risk, make good choices and control their anger and impulses," said Stephen Harper, who teaches juvenile justice law at the University of Miami.
"The argument has been that they shouldn't be subject to the ultimate punishment," because they are less culpable for their crimes than are adult killers, Harper said.
As in the case of retarded killers, the latest case does not challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole. The Supreme Court has allowed states to impose capital punishment since 1976, but has barred the practice for those who were younger than 16 at the time of their crimes.
The United States is nearly unique among nations in allowing the executions of very young killers, and the practice is rare even within the country.
Nationwide, just two teenage killers were sentenced to death last year, said Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University and author of an annual report on the juvenile death penalty.
The four most liberal justices took an extraordinary step in the fall of 2002, signing a dissent in an appeal by a death row inmate that called it "shameful" to execute juvenile killers.
"The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote then. He was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The rhetoric echoed the court's ruling months earlier that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. In that 6-3 ruling, the court gave great weight to the actions of state legislatures, many of which had acted on their own to ban the practice.
The court majority said, in effect, that times change and that the constitutionality of such executions changes with them. The ruling drew fierce dissents from the court's three most conservative members.
, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who view the Constitution as a more rigid document.
Shortly after that ruling, Stevens predicted that juvenile killers would be the next major death penalty question before the court, but the justices had passed up several chances before accepting an appeal in the case of Simmons.
It takes at least four justices to agree to hear an appeal. That vote is secret, so it is unclear whether the court's liberals or conservatives, or both, wanted to take on the issue now.
If the Supreme Court upholds the Missouri ruling, the 73 other death row inmates who committed their crimes before 18 would probably also receive life terms.
"I think the people of each state should be allowed to decide this themselves," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and a death penalty supporter.
While he personally favors raising the minimum age for execution to 18, the matter is best left to state legislatures, Scheidegger said.
Thirty-eight states now allow the death penalty, although in practice some states never impose the sentence. Of the 38, 17 states ban the sentence for those under 18; California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.
The federal government also bars the execution of juveniles for federal capital crimes.
The Case is Roper v. Simmons, 03-633.
Other Supreme Court action on Monday
Agreed to consider whether executing juvenile killers violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," a follow-up to a ruling two years ago that abolished executions for the mentally retarded.
Told police not to pursue confessions from criminal suspects facing formal charges until telling them they have a right to see an attorney.
Turned down an appeal from former Mafia hit man and mob turncoat Sammy the Bull, who wanted to reclaim more than $380,000 in royalties from a book about his life.
Rejected a claim that Max Factor cosmetics heir Andrew Luster had been unfairly deprived of his rights to appeal his rape convictions in California courts.
Asked for the Bush administration's views on the practice of drug makers paying generic companies that keep cheaper products off the market during patent disputes, in the appeal of an antitrust ruling against Aventis Pharmaceuticals and generic drug company Andrx Pharmaceuticals.
Refused to consider an appeal from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., over a $195,000 judgment awarded to the widow of a teacher who died of cancer.
-- The Associated Press