Court Faces Fight Over Teen Executions

By Ori Nir

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — In an effort to end America’s status as the only Western nation to execute juveniles, more than 30 religious organizations have come together to urge the Supreme Court to outlaw the practice.

The coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist organizations signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday, which argued that such executions should be ruled unconstitutional. Observers are predicting that the issue will garner more attention and spark more public debate than any criminal matter slated to be handled by the court during its upcoming 2004-2005 term.

Coordinated and submitted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the brief addresses the case of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 in 1993 when he admitted to murdering Shirley Crook, a 46-year-old resident of Fenton, Mo. Simmons broke into the woman’s home with a 14-year-old accomplice. The two apparently feared that that she had recognized them. They used duct tape and electrical wire to tie her up, and then killed her by throwing her off a bridge into a river. Simmons was sentenced to death. Last August Missouri’s Supreme Court overturned the sentence, ruling that the execution of juvenile offenders violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state of Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Upholding the Missouri ruling would require the Supreme Court to overturn its 1989 decision permitting the death penalty for minors aged 16 years or older.

The United States is one of very few countries that impose the death penalty on people under the age of 18. In the past four years, only five nations have executed minors: Congo, China, Iran, Pakistan and the United States.

Several Jewish groups endorsed the brief, including the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Synagogues and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Anti-Defamation League decided not to sign the brief because it has no policy on the death penalty, a spokeswoman for the organization said. Nathan Diament, the direction of the Orthodox Union’s Washington office, said his organization opposes the execution of juveniles, but missed the deadline for signing on to the brief.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that religious organizations were not vigorously solicited to sign the brief. The brief, he added, was promoted by “word of mouth” through an informal network of contacts, and organizations that may have otherwise signed on did not find out about the brief in time.

According to sources familiar with the situation, the Orthodox Union was not vigorously pressed to join the coalition. Organizers of the brief said that many organizations were contacted, but no aggressive attempts were made to have organizations sign on.

The brief brings together a broad interfaith and multidenominational coalition of religious organizations. Some of these groups oppose the death penalty on principle, as a matter of faith. Others do not share the same theological objections. All the organizations, however, were willing to sign a brief stating “that the execution of persons for crimes they committed as juveniles cannot be morally justified.”

In an unusual move, a collage of opinions by the participating groups, each attempting to show how the prohibition on punishing minors by death is anchored in its religious scriptures, makes up the brief.

Several of the larger, conservative religious organizations did not sign on to the brief. Some declined to do so because they have historically avoided taking a position on the death penalty.

No religious organizations filed briefs supporting the execution of minors. That argument was taken up in briefs filed by victims-rights groups and jurists, arguing that states should have the right to decide how to punish criminals. Nineteen states allow the execution of minors who commit murders, but not all these states implement the punishment.

The religious groups’ brief drew less attention than a separate brief arguing against the execution of juveniles, filed Monday by Nobel Prize winners, many foreign governments, former American diplomats, America’s largest doctors’ organization and other advocacy associations. This second coalition also urged the Supreme Court to ban the death penalty on people who were minors when they committed severe crimes, stating that between 1990 and 2003 the United States executed more juvenile offenders than the rest of the world combined.

In Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state, a dozen men who were 17 when they committed their crime have been executed since 1982, when capital punishment was reinstituted in the state. Another 27 convicts who are currently on Texas’s death row were 17 when they committed their crime.

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