Missouri jurors convicted Christopher Simmons of a murder they called “vile, horrible and inhuman,” says USA Today. Simmons, then 17, burglarized a neighbor’s home in 1993. After neighbor Shirley Crook, 46, recognized him, Simmons and a 15-year-old accomplice hogtied her, drove to a nearby park and pushed her off a railroad trestle into a river, where she drowned. Simmons reportedly had bragged that he could kill someone and avoid execution because he was younger than 18 years old. But he was sentenced to death; Missouri was one of 20 states that allowed the execution of killers who committed their crimes at 16 or 17 – before the state Supreme Court banned such executions.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the Simmons case and consider a question that could affect 73 U.S. death-row inmates who committed crimes before 18: whether executing such inmates amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. In 1988, the high court struck down death sentences for 15-year-olds. Critics cite “evolving standards of decency,” the rationale the court has used in striking down other punishments that were once deemed constitutional. Missouri Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke says the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Simmons’ death sentence was based on erroneous research. During the past 15 years, only two states have raised their minimum age for execution to 18, Hawke wrote. That suggests that there is no “new national consensus” that the death penalty for juvenile crimes is inhumane.