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Roper v. Simmons

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Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court of the United States
Date: 1 March 2005 CRC
Provisions: Article 37: Torture and Deprivation of Liberty
Other international provisions:International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), Article 6(5)American Convention on Human Rights: Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica, Article 4(5)African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 5(3)
Domestic provisions:United States Constitution: 8th and 14th Amendments

Case summary

Background: A juvenile offender was convicted of murder at age 17 and then sentenced to the death penalty the following year despite having been under 18 at the time of the offence.

Issue and resolution: Capital punishment of children.  The death penalty may not be imposed for offences committed before reaching age 18 because doing so would violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”. 

Court reasoning: Executing an offender for a crime committed while still a juvenile would conflict with the “standards of decency” in the United States, as evidenced by trends across the states and internationally. Additionally, three general differences between juveniles and adults demonstrate that juveniles cannot be classified among the worst offenders worthy of the death penalty: (1) juveniles lack maturity and a developed sense of responsibility, (2) juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, and (3) the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. It is also unlikely that the death penalty has any measurable deterrent effect on juveniles.

Dissent: There is no consensus across the country against the juvenile death penalty; states are well within their rights to execute juvenile offenders.

Excerpts Citing CRC and Other Relevant Human Rights “As respondent and a number of amici emphasize, Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which every country in the world has ratified save for the United States and Somalia, contains an express prohibition on capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles under 18….No ratifying country has entered a reservation to the provision prohibiting the execution of juvenile offenders. Parallel prohibitions are contained in other significant international covenants. See ICCPR, Art. 6(5), 999 U.N.T.S., at 175 (prohibiting capital punishment for anyone under 18 at the time of offense) (signed and ratified by the United States subject to a reservation regarding Article 6(5), as noted, supra, at 1194); American Convention on Human Rights: Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica, Art. 4(5), Nov. 22, 1969, 1144 U.N.T.S. 146 (entered into force July 19, 1978) (same); African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Art. 5(3), OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/ 24.9/49 (1990) (entered into force Nov. 29, 1999) (same).” “The reservation to Article 6(5) of the ICCPR provides minimal evidence that there is not now a national consensus against juvenile executions.” [Note: When the U.S. Senate ratified the ICCPR, it did so subject to the President’s reservation regarding Article 6(5) of the treaty, which prohibits capital punishment for juveniles.]

Notes: Given that the United States has not ratified the CRC and the Convention accordingly has no force in U.S. law, the Court’s mention and brief discussion of the Convention is particularly noteworthy.   For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s ‘Inhuman sentencing’ campaign.

CRIN comments:  As executing children in conflict with the law is a clear violation of the CRC, CRIN believes this decision is consistent with the principles of the Convention. Children in conflict with the law should be treated with respect and dignity in the context of a rehabilitation-oriented juvenile justice system.  

Citation: Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

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