Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 9

1993—Missouri 17-year-old Christopher Simmons plans a brutal murder and assures his friends that they can “get away with it” because they are minors. In the middle of the night, Simmons and a friend break into the home of Shirley Crook, awaken her, cover her eyes and mouth with duct tape, bind her hands, put her in her minivan, drive to a state park, walk her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec river, tie her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrap her whole face in duct tape, and throw her from the bridge. Exactly as Simmons plans, Mrs. Crook drowns an unspeakably cruel death in the waters below.

Simmons confesses to the murder. At the death-penalty phase of his trial, the judge instructs the jurors that they can consider Simmons’s age as a mitigating factor, and the defense relies heavily on that factor. The jury recommends, and the trial judge imposes, the death penalty.

A dozen years after Simmons’s summary execution of Mrs. Crook, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, relies on “international opinion” to overturn its own precedent and to rule (in Roper v. Simmons) that execution of offenders who were 17 at the time of their offense violates the Eighth Amendment. (See This Day for Mar. 1.) In dissent, Justice Scalia observes that the majority’s “startling conclusion” that “juries cannot be trusted with the delicate task of weighing a defendant’s youth along with the other mitigating and aggravating factors of his crime … undermines the very foundations of our capital sentencing system, which entrusts juries with ‘mak[ing] the difficult and uniquely human judgments that defy codification and that ‘buil[d] discretion, equity, and flexibility into a legal system.’”

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