updated 3/1/2005 1:41:17 PM ET 2005-03-01T18:41:17

Here are excerpts from the Supreme Court opinion outlawing the death penalty for offenders under 18 when their crimes were committed and from the dissent:

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Majority opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy:

Both objective indicia of consensus, as expressed in particular by the enactments of legislatures that have addressed the question, and the Court’s own determination in the exercise of its independent judgment, demonstrate that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for juveniles.”

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The objective indicia of national consensus here — the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of states; the infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books; and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of the practice — provide sufficient evidence that today our society views juveniles, in the words ... used respecting the mentally retarded, as “categorically less culpable than the average criminal.”

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Three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. First, as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies ... tend to confirm, “a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.” ... The second area of difference is that juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. The third broad difference is that the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. The personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed.

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Once the diminished culpability of juveniles is recognized, it is evident that the penological justifications for the death penalty apply to them with lesser force than to adults.

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Dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia:

The court ... claims halfheartedly that a national consensus has emerged since our decision in Stanford, because 18 states — or 47 percent of states that permit capital punishment — now have legislation prohibiting the execution of offenders under 18, and because all of four states have adopted such legislation since Stanford. Words have no meaning if the views of less than 50 percent of death penalty states can constitute a national consensus.

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That 12 states favor no executions says something about consensus against the death penalty, but nothing — absolutely nothing — about consensus that offenders under 18 deserve special immunity from such a penalty. In repealing the death penalty, those 12 states considered none of the factors that the court puts forth as determinative of the issue before us today — lower culpability of the young, inherent recklessness, lack of capacity for considered judgment.

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All the court has done today ... is to look over the heads of the crowd and pick out its friends. We need not look far to find studies contradicting the court’s conclusions. ... The American Psychological Association, which claims in this case that scientific evidence shows persons under 18 lack the ability to take moral responsibility for their decisions, has previously taken precisely the opposite position before this very court.

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Dissenting opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:

The fact that juveniles are generally less culpable for their misconduct than adults does not necessarily mean that a 17-year-old murderer cannot be sufficiently culpable to merit the death penalty.

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An especially depraved juvenile offender may nevertheless be just as culpable as many adult offenders considered bad enough to deserve the death penalty. Similarly, the fact that the availability of the death penalty may be less likely to deter a juvenile from committing a capital crime does not imply that this threat cannot effectively deter some 17-year-olds from such an act.

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