Comprehensive neuropsychiatric and psychosocial assessments of death-row inmates and imaging studies exploring brain maturation in adolescents played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to forbid the execution of killers who were 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes, according to statements in court documents.
In 1993, 17-year-old Christopher Simmons and a friend, 15-year-old Charles Benjamin, broke into the home of Shirley Crook (Roper v Simmons, 2005). She awoke, and the two young burglars bound her hands, covered her eyes and mouth with duct tape, and shoved her into her minivan. They then drove her to a state park, where they tied her hands and feet with electrical wire, wrapped her entire face in duct tape, and threw her off a bridge into Missouri's Meramec River, where she drowned. Simmons later was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to die by lethal injection. Benjamin was sentenced to life in prison.
It is Roper v Simmons that recently led the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, to affirm a ruling of the Missouri Supreme Court (Simmons v Roper, 2003). In 2003, the state court held that a national consensus had developed against executing juvenile offenders and that the death penalty imposed upon juveniles is "cruel and unusual" punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It set aside Simmons' death sentence and re-sentenced him to "life imprisonment without eligibility for probation, parole or release except by act of the Governor."
For the past 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has grappled with the issue of when a child's thinking has matured sufficiently to be considered equivalent to that of an adult. In 1988, the court, in Thompson v Oklahoma, outlawed execution for those who were 15 and younger when they committed their crimes. Yet, a year later in the case of Stanford v Kentucky (1989), the same court decided that 16-year-olds were sufficiently mature to be tried as adults and executed.
The Supreme Court's decision last March bars the execution of those under 18 at the time of the murder. The decision nullifies laws allowing the death penalty for juveniles in 20 states and voids the sentences of 73 death-row inmates in 12 states.