Roper v. Simmons
Argued October 13, 2004 – Decided March 1, 2005
In September of 1993, Christopher Simmons broke into the suburban St. Louis home of Shirley Crook with the intention to rob and possibly kill her. Simmons and a friend tied the victim up with duct tape and drove her to a nearby state park. At the park, Simmons pushed the victim, who was still alive, off of a bridge and into the Meramec River where she drowned. Simmons was 17 years old at the time of the murder. Before the crime, he had told several of his friends of the plan to burglarize a home and kill the occupants, noting that they could do it and “get away with it” (not get charged for it) because they were juveniles. 1
Simmons and his friends were arrested the following day, and Simmons confessed on videotape at the police station. He even agreed to re-enact the crime on videotape and returned to the park and demonstrated where Mrs. Crook had been pushed from the rail bridge. At trial the jury easily found him guilty. During the sentencing hearing the defense attorneys asked the jury to use Simmons’ age and the fact that he had no prior convictions as mitigating factors and not give Simmons the death penalty. However, the jury focused on the brutal and aggravated nature of the crime and sentenced Simmons to death by lethal injection.
Simmons' case was appealed, citing ineffective trial support. His age and thus impulsiveness, along with a troubled background were brought up as issues. The trial court upheld the jury's death sentence. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review. Simmons’ attempt at legal relief from the federal courts (habeas corpus) was also denied. However, in light of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that overturned the death penalty for the mentally retarded, the Missouri Supreme Court reconsidered Simmons' case. In an unusual move, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that, "a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders" and sentenced Simmons to life imprisonment without parole. The State of Missouri appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari (agreed to hear the case) and ordered oral arguments in the case Roper v. Simmons. Issue
Does the Eighth Amendment prohibit the execution of juveniles who commit capital crimes prior to turning 18 years of age? Precedents
Tropp v. Dulles (1958)—While this is not a death penalty case, the Supreme Court interpreted that the Eighth Amendment contained an “evolving standard of decency which marked the progress of a maturing society.”
Ford v. Wainwright (1986)—The Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally ill individuals.
Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988)—The Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute offenders aged 15 and younger at the time of their crimes.
Stanford v. Kentucky (1989)—The Supreme Court held that it does not violate the Constitution to give 16 and 17 year olds the death penalty.
Penry v. Lynaugh (1989)—The Supreme Court held that executing persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Atkins v. Virginia (2002)—The Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.
Arguments for Roper
Currently, death penalty sentences are done in a thoughtful and deliberative manner. A jury makes the decision on whether a 16 or 17 year old should be given the death penalty. At sentencing, the jury is given information that assists in their decision of whether the death penalty is an appropriate punishment. During sentencing the defendant’s age is taken into consideration along with other pertinent information. The fact that Simmons would be only the second juvenile executed in Missouri is further proof that juries only use the death penalty for the worst offenders.
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