High court sets aside order for execution

The state Supreme Court rules juveniles should not face death.
Wednesday, August 27, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set aside the death sentence of a man who was convicted of murder for killing a St. Louis-area woman when he was 17 years old.

The high court’s 4-3 decision relies on the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning in a 2002 ruling that barred the execution of mentally retarded people. The Missouri justices ruled that decision should apply to juveniles as well.

Rather than face execution, the court said Christopher Simmons should serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“It offends the standards of decency in our society to execute juveniles,” said Jennifer Herndon, Simmons’ attorney. “The court looked at what’s going on in the world now to decide what’s appropriate and decided that (the death penalty) is not.”

The state plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Scott Holste, a spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. He said the case was at odds with a previous U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld states’ rights to execute people 16 or older who have been convicted of murder.

Simmons, now 27, was 17 when he broke into the home of Shirley Crook, of Fenton, abducted her, and threw her off a train trestle above the Meramec River. Simmons’ lawyers argued that he was too young to face the death penalty and that no one under 18 should be sentenced to death, Herndon said.

The Missouri Supreme Court relied upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal.”

Tuesday’s decision marks the first time the state’s highest court has applied the Atkins decision to a case involving a juvenile, said Beth Riggert, the court’s communications counsel.

In the Virginia v. Atkins case, the U.S. Supreme Court held in June 2002 that executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments,” based on “currently prevailing standards of decency.”

“One of the arguments against the juvenile death penalty is that any juvenile doesn’t have the mental capacity to control their actions and therefore should not be eligible for the death penalty,” Herndon said.

Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr. dissented from the majority, basing his argument on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that found no national consensus against sentencing convicted murderers 16 or older to death.

Missouri law says convicted murderers 16 years or older may be sentenced to death, Holste said.

Holste declined to speculate on how Tuesday’s decision could affect future convicted killers under 18.

“We want the U.S. Supreme Court to have an opportunity to make a decision on this case,” Holste said.

After Tuesday’s decision, the only Missouri death row inmate convicted of murder as a juvenile is Antonio Richardson, who raped two girls and shoved them over a bridge into the Mississippi River in 1991. Richardson was 16 when he committed the crimes and was reported to have had an IQ of 70 at the time.

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