ACLU Joins Nobel Laureates, U.S. Diplomats and World Leaders in Asking High Court to End the Execution of Minors

July 19, 2004 12:00 am

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For Minors as for Adults, Race Determines Who Gets the Death Penalty, Groups Argue


NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and others today joined 17 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and nine former U.S. diplomats as well as medical and religious leaders in calling on the Supreme Court to end the juvenile death penalty.

“The briefs filed before the Court today demonstrate a broad consensus against executing adolescents,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “In our brief, we raise the particular concern, that conscious and unconscious racism operates to punish adolescents of color more harshly, and that is yet another reason why the death penalty should not be used in these cases.”

The brief filed by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and others points to empirical evidence that demonstrates that “juvenile offenders of color are generally more likely to be wrongfully convicted, wrongly sentenced to death and wrongfully subjected to an otherwise flawed adjudication.”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Roper v. Simmons, in January. However, arguments will not take place until the next term, which begins in the fall. The outcome could lead to a reversal of a 1989 decision in which the court upheld the death penalty for crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. Since 1988, the court has barred execution of those 15 and younger.

Specifically at issue in this case is whether the Missouri Supreme Court was correct in overturning the death sentence of Christopher Simmons on the ground that executing minors violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Simmons was 17 at the time of his crime.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that execute juvenile offenders, and every other nation in the world has joined international agreements prohibiting the practice. Earlier this year, South Dakota and Wyoming banned the execution of juveniles under the age of 18; similar legislation passed in the New Hampshire Senate and House and the Florida Senate. Currently 31 states, the federal government, the U.S. Military prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders.

The actual execution of juvenile offenders is highly unusual in the United States, Rust-Tierney noted. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 43 states have never executed a juvenile offender. Eighty-two percent of juvenile executions have been carried out in only three states: Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma.

Currently there are 72 people on death row under death sentences received for crimes committed when they were adolescents. But juries are increasingly unwilling to put young offenders to death, as evidenced by a declining annual death sentence rate that now stands at its lowest point in 14 years. In 2003, only two juveniles were sentenced to death in the entire United States. An ABC News poll in December 2003 found that seven out of 10 Americans are opposed to the execution of juvenile offenders.

In addition to the brief filed by the ACLU and NAACP LDF, the nation’s leading medical organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society of Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Children and Adolescents, submitted a brief.

More than 420 prominent pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists and neurologists, including former Surgeon Generals C. Everett Koop and Julius Richmond, and Drs. T. Berry Brazelton and Alvin Poussaint submitted the Health Professionals’ Call to Abolish the Death Penalty to the Court as part of their brief.

Seventeen Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including former President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former South African President F. W. de Klerk and the Dalai Lama, as well as nine former U.S. diplomats also submitted briefs in support of ending the juvenile death penalty.

In their brief, the former diplomats maintain that permitting a few select states to continue executing juvenile offenders increasingly isolates the United States from its close allies and aligns it with countries that consistently demonstrate poor human rights records. The prohibition of the juvenile death penalty is widely recognized as a rule of customary international law, according to the brief they submitted.

Nearly 50 countries in the European Union and Members of the International Community also submitted a brief, as did the Bar Association of England and Wales.

More than 25 major religious denominations in the United States also submitted a brief, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Greek Orthodox Church, Presbyterian Church USA, American Baptist Church USA, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church USA and the American Jewish Committee.

Many prominent child welfare groups, including the Children’s Defense Fund, Child Welfare League of America, Voices for America’s Children, and the National Association of Counsel for Children also submitted a brief.

Other advocacy groups submitting briefs in favor of ending the death penalty for juveniles included Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization of murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, and the American Bar Association.

The ACLU/NAACP-LDF brief was also signed by National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Bar Association, National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality, National Black Police Officers, National Conference of Black Lawyers and National Black Law Students Association. It is online at /node/36312

For more information on the case, plus links to the other briefs filed, go to

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