WASHINGTON — When Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death for the murder of Shirley Ann Crook in 1994, it got little more than a brief in a local newspaper, as did the discovery of Crook’s body in the Meramec River near St. Louis.
But now a ruling in that case could affect the lives of about 75 people on death row in the United States.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to revisit the issue of executing people who were 16 and 17 years old when they committed crimes. Simmons, of Fenton, was 17 at the time of the crime.
In a 1989 ruling, involving another Missouri case, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to execute people who were convicted of crimes they committed when they were under 16.
Simmons, now 27, was taken off Missouri’s death row after the state’s highest court ruled in August that Simmons be sentenced to life in prison without parole, saying, “A national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders.”
Simmons’ attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said Monday morning she hadn’t told Simmons his case would be before the U.S. Supreme Court, but she knew the decision would be a disappointment.
If the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of executing people who were 16 or 17 when they committed crimes, Simmons could go back to death row.
“Knowing that he could be again (on death row) is not going to make him happy,” Herndon said. But she added, “He’s sort of used to rolling with the punches.” Simmons has been within a week of his execution date twice before.
If the U.S. Supreme Court rules for Simmons, dozens of other people who are on death row across the country for crimes they committed as juveniles could have their sentences changed to life in prison.
Simmons is one of four people in the state who have been in this circumstance since Missouri reinstituted the death penalty in the 1970s, according to Jeff Stack of the Missouri Banning Youth Executions Coalition.
Missouri is one of 38 states that allow the death penalty, along with the federal government. About 15 of those states use 16 as the minimum age for execution, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. The other states use 17 or 18 as the minimum age.
When the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Simmons’ death sentence they said 18 was the appropriate minimum age for execution. That’s a decision to be applauded, said Laura Schopp, an assistant professor at MU and a representative for the Missouri Psychological Association to the Missouri Banning Youth Executions Coalition.
Schopp said she sees the evolving moral standard that the Missouri Supreme Court saw.
“I’m hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will be able to consider whether the national consensus is there to halt the death penalty for juvenile offenders,” she said.
Moreover, Schopp points to the differences between teenage and adult brains and age inconsistencies in laws. For example, Missouri law deems that people be 21 before purchasing alcohol or serving on a jury.
“It’s important to note saying that we’re not going to execute youth doesn’t mean saying that youth aren’t culpable,” Schopp said. “Executing them is a different matter. It violates a sense of public decency.”
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, whose office decided to appeal the Missouri Supreme Court decision, said in a statement, “If there is an evolving standard on this issue of executing murderers who were 16 or 17 at the time, it should be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Nixon said he was not surprised the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case given the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments this term in two other Missouri cases, one involving Miranda rights and the other involving telecommunications service. The court is expected to rule on the cases in coming months.