WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Constitution forbids the execution of killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, ending a practice used in 19 states.
The 5-4 decision throws out the death sentences of 72 juvenile murderers and bars states from seeking to execute minors for future crimes.
The ruling had an immediate effect on the nation's most notorious teen killer, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo.
Prosecutors in Virginia's Prince William County had waited for the ruling to decide on bringing Malvo to trial for one of the 10 killings in an October 2002 killing spree by Malvo and accomplice John Allen Muhammad.
Prosecutor Paul Ebert said after the ruling that he won't prosecute Malvo, because Malvo has already been sentenced to life in prison without parole for two of the killings. Ebert said another trial would now be an unnecessary expense since the death penatly was not an option. Malvo was 17 at the time of the killings.
The executions, the court said, violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling continues the court’s practice of narrowing the scope of the death penalty, which justices reinstated in 1976. The court in 1988 outlawed executions for those 15 and younger when they committed their crimes. Three years ago justices banned executions of the mentally retarded.
Tuesday’s ruling prevents states from making 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for execution.
“The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.
Juvenile offenders have been put to death in recent years in only a few other countries, including Iran, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia. Kennedy cited international opposition to the practice.
“It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime,” he wrote.
Kennedy noted most states don’t allow the execution of juvenile killers and those that do use the penalty infrequently. The trend, he said, is to abolish the practice because “our society views juveniles ... as categorically less culpable than the average criminal.”
Kennedy joins more liberal justices
Justices were called on to draw an age line in death cases after Missouri’s highest court overturned the death sentence given to a 17-year-old Christopher Simmons, who kidnapped a neighbor in Missouri, hog-tied her and threw her off a bridge. Prosecutors say he planned the burglary and killing of Shirley Crook in 1993 and bragged that he could get away with it because of his age.
The four most liberal justices had already gone on record in 2002, calling it “shameful” to execute juvenile killers. Those four, joined by Kennedy, also agreed with Tuesday’s decision: Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, as expected, voted to uphold the executions. They were joined by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Before Tuesday's ruling, 19 states allowed executions for people under age 18: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas and Virginia.
The federal government already bars the execution of juveniles for federal capital crimes.
Scalia, O'Connor write dissents
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia disputed that there is a trend and chastised his colleagues for taking power from the states.
“The court says in so many words that what our people’s laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter: 'In the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty,'" he wrote in a 24-page dissent.
“The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation’s moral standards,” Scalia wrote.
The Supreme Court has permitted states to impose capital punishment since 1976 and more than 3,400 inmates await execution in the 38 states that allow death sentences. Twenty-two of the people put to death since then were juveniles when they committed their crimes. Texas executed the most, 13, and also has the most on death row now — 29.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor filed a separate dissent, arguing that a blanket rule against juvenile executions was misguided. Case-by-case determinations of a young offenders’ maturity is the better approach, she wrote.
“The court’s analysis is premised on differences in the aggregate between juveniles and adults, which frequently do not hold true when comparing individuals,” she said. “Chronological age is not an unfailing measure of psychological development, and common experience suggests that many 17-year-olds are more mature than the average young 'adult.”’
Pro, con reaction
Death penalty opponents quickly cheered the ruling as a victory for human rights.
“Today, the court repudiated the misguided idea that the United States can pledge to leave no child behind while simultaneously exiling children to the death chamber,” said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“Now the U.S. can proudly remove its name from the embarrassing list of human rights violators that includes China, Iran, and Pakistan that still execute juvenile offenders,” he said.
Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based Justice for All victims’ advocacy group, criticized the decision and said she hopes that when there is a Supreme Court vacancy a strong death penalty supporter is nominated.
“The Supreme Court has opened the door for more innocent people to suffer by 16 and 17 year olds,” she said. “I can’t wait for the Supreme Court to have judges more concerned with American values, American statutes and American law than what the Europeans think.”
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