Roper v. Simmons and Capital Litigation: I have just finished working my way through the opinions in Roper v. Simmons. As someone who greatly values stare decisis, I was disappointed by Justice Kennedy's majority opinion. There just isn't much there to justify overruling a 16-year-old precedent and striking down 18 state laws. I'm not sure about the juvenile death penalty as a matter of policy, but I found Justice Scalia's powerful dissent pretty tough to refute as a matter of constitutional law.

  One interesting part of Roper is the incentives it creates (together with Atkins v. Virginia) for those seeking judicial abolition of the death penalty. Roper and Atkins tell capital defense litigators to delay their cases for as many years as possible. Drag out the appeals for a long, long time. During that period, have activists try to encourage legislators in a few select states to enact new legislative restrictions on the death penalty. It doesn't matter if those restrictions have any actual effect on how cases are charged; bans in states that do not actually bring any death penalty cases are fine, as the real audience is the Supreme Court. Years down the road, you can then use the new legislative restrictions in a few states as "objective indicia of consensus" that the practice of using the death penalty in such cases is impermissible. In effect, the changing practice in a handful of states can be bootstrapped by the courts into a constitutional ban that applies to all states.

  Notably, the bootstrapping can be prospective: evidence of changing attitudes in years following the crime and conviction can be used to trump then-governing law. This seems to be what happened in Roper. In 1989, the Court held that it was permissible to execute persons for murders committed at the age of 16 and 17. In 1993, Christopher Simmons committeed his heinous murder, and in 1994, Simmons was convicted and sentenced to death. Then, in the 11 years after Simmons was convicted and before the Supreme Court decided its case, 4 states decided end potential juvenile capital liability. [At least I think the states acted after 1994; to be honest, it's hard to tell from the Streib chart that the Court relies on. If anyone knows the exact dates, please e-mail me.] The action of the 4 states then became the basis for an alleged "consensus" in the direction of ending the juvenile death penalty. Had Roper been scheduled for execution soon after his conviction, executing him presumably would have been constitutional. Executing him apparently became unconstitutional only years later, after Atkins loosened up the Eighth Amendment a bit and a few states had banned the juvenile death penalty.

  UPDATE: Reader Jack Sullivan points out: "It seems pretty obvious that the defense lawyers already have plenty of incentive for delay. Delay keeps their clients alive." Indeed! The novel part here isn't the incentive for delay but the incentive for pushing legislative reforms during that delay.
Roper v. Simmons and Evolving Standards of Decency: In Roper v. Simmons, yesterday's decision declaring the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional, the Supreme Court relied heavily on the fact that five states have gone from allowing the juvenile death penalty to banning it since the Court's 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky:
  Five States that allowed the juvenile death penalty at the time of Stanford have abandoned it in the intervening 15 years — —four through legislative enactments and one through judicial decision. Streib, supra, at 5, 7; State v. Furman, 122 Wash. 2d 400, 858 P. 2d 1092 (1993) (en banc).
  Though less dramatic than the change from Penry to Atkins (“telling,” to borrow the word Atkins used to describe this difference, 536 U. S., at 315, n. 18), we still consider the change from Stanford to this case to be significant.
  As Xrlq points out, however, something important is missing from this analysis: a sense of whether the five states that changed their policy are states in which capital litigation is active or basically dormant. If the goal is to look for "evolving standards of decency" and find an "emerging national consensus," it is one thing to say that practices changed in five states; it is another to say that actual practices stayed the same, but that the law on the books in a few states changed. The difference matters because while most states allow capital punishment in theory, the actual practice of bringing capital cases and carrying out the sentences is heavily weighted in favor of a small number of states.

  I took a look at some statistics, and the stats seem to confirm my suspicion: the five states that moved to ban capital punishment for juveniles are states that have capital punishment on the books but rarely use those laws. While five states changed their laws on the books since 1989, it seems that actual practices since 1989 remained the same.

  Here are the stats I found. The juvenile death penalty has always been very rare in the United States; since the beginning of the republic, it has occurred on average about once a year. That rate has remained constant (at least in absolute terms) in the last twenty years: 22 juveniles have been executed in the last 20 years. Texas is responsible for 13 of those cases; Virginia for 3; Oklahoma 2; Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri each for 1. (stats on page 4 of the Streib report cited in the Roper opinion)

  The states that banned the juvenile death penalty since Stanford v. Kentucky are Washington (by the courts), and (I think, from page 7 of the Streib report). Kansas, New York, Montana, and Indiana. But Washington, Kansas, New York, Montana, and Indiana aren't states that have executed anyone for a juvenile crime at least in the last three decades — and indeed, I'm having trouble finding evidence that any of these states ever actually did so.

  More broadly, these five states are not active death penalty states even for adult crimes. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, these five states have been responsible for 17 out of the 1,000 or so executions that have occurred — only about 2% of the total. 11 of the 17 executions were in just one state, Indiana. (The numbers, available here, are Washington - 4, Kansas - 0, New York - 0, Montana - 2, and Indiana - 11.) Notably, of the 4 states that abolished the juvenile death penalty by legislative decision, 2 of those don't actually have a functional death penalty for any defendant.

  If I understand the statistics correctly, the move to abolish the juvenile death penalty in five states since 1989 is essentially symbolic: none of those states have executed a juvenile in many decades, if ever, and the five states are mostly states that have capital punishment in theory but not in practice. If the "evolving standards of decency" inquiry of the Eighth Amendment focuses on actual practices, then there seems to be virtually no evidence of a changed standard since 1989.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Juveniles, the Death Penalty & Deterrence:
  2. Roper v. Simmons and Evolving Standards of Decency:
  3. Roper v. Simmons and Capital Litigation:
Juveniles, the Death Penalty & Deterrence:

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons maintains that the deterrence argument for the death penalty apply with "lesser force" to juveniles. Kennedy writes: "it is unclear whether the death penalty has a significant or even measurable deterrent effect on juveniles," and notes that, as a general matter, "juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence" than adults.

Interestingly enough, the facts of the case, as described in Kennedy's own opinion, suggest that criminal sanctions do have a potential deterrent effect on juveniles:

There is little doubt that Simmons was the instigator of the crime. Before its commission Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan, discussing it for the most part with two friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, then aged 15 and 16 respectively. Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim, and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could "get away with it" because they were minors. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, Simmons sought to induce other juveniles to participate in his crimes by telling them they need not fear criminal prosecution. This argument would have been unnecessary were his friends not deterred, at least in part, by such threats. From this proposition it is but a small step to assume that the severity of the criminal sanction -- death as opposed to a set jail term -- could have some deterrent effect on the margin. This does not mean that capital punishment for juveniles is a good idea, but it does suggest that Justice Kennedy may have been a bit too quick to dismiss the potential for deterrence. Indeed, his own recital of the facts should have raised a red flag on this point.