Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Don't Mess With Texas (Ladies)

This will bring tears to your eyes. It's a voice mail recording of a call from a motorist who witnessed a fender bender and the subsequent kerfuffle. Make sure your sound is turned on.

Thanks to Little Green Footballs for the tip.

Roper v. Simmons

The Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in Roper v. Simmons that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute people for murders committed before they turned 18. They maintain that because many foreign nations don't execute those under 18 and because many states have banned the practice that therefore it is "cruel and unusual."

For the most part, however, the reasoning of the Court is based on precedents (e.g. Atkins, 2002) which found that the diminished capacity of juveniles is similar to that of the mentally retarded. Like mentally retarded criminals, juveniles lack a fully-developed sense of right and wrong and therefore are not as responsible for their crimes as adults and should not be subject to capital punishment, or so the argument went:

[T]oday society views juveniles, in the words Atkins used respecting the mentally retarded, as "categorically less culpable than the average criminal..."

Justice Scalia's dissent eloquently filets the majority's flimsy rationale for their decision. He writes, for instance, that:

In other contexts where individualized consideration is provided, we have recognized that at least some minors will be mature enough to make difficult decisions that involve moral considerations. For instance, we have struck down abortion statutes that do not allow minors deemed mature by courts to bypass parental notification provisions. ... It is hard to see why this context should be any different. Whether to obtain an abortion is surely a much more complex decision for a young person than whether to kill an innocent person in cold blood.

There are other flaws in the Court's ruling, as well. Among them, it sets a precedent for lawyers whose adult clients have committed murder that would enable them to escape the death penalty simply by showing that the client didn't really understand that murder is wrong. The lawyer could argue that his client was perhaps unduly influenced by the Nietzschean plea to transcend the concepts of good and evil, or believed that some murders are not bad acts, or that had the emotional maturity of a teenager, etc. It is, after all, not his age which exculpates the juvenile but the emotional and rational disabilities the majority sees as inherent in his age. But these "disabilities" are not unique to teenagers. By what logic, then, will the Court be able to deny to others the protection those "disabilities" confer on juveniles?

The decision also establishes the premise for effectively banning any long-term punishment for juvenile killers. If they should not receive the same penalty as would an adult what justification is there then for life sentences? If they're just kids, why not simply get them counseling and keep them out of prison altogether? The Court's decision, written by Justice Kennedy, says this:

Three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. Juveniles' susceptibility to immature and irresponsible behavior means 'their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.' ....Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment....The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. The Thompson plurality recognized the import of these characteristics with respect to juveniles under 16....The same reasoning applies to all juvenile offenders under 18. Once juveniles' diminished culpability is recognized, it is evident that neither of the two penological justifications for the death penalty - retribution and deterrence of capital crimes by prospective offenders,....- provides adequate justification for imposing that penalty on juveniles.

The above, of course, makes it sound as if these juvenile murderers are just a bunch of scamps out soaping car windows. In fact, they are often hardened, cruel savages. Here's the account of Mr. Simmons' crime:

At the age of 17, when he was still a junior in high school, Christopher Simmons, the respondent here, committed murder. About nine months later, after he had turned 18, he was tried and sentenced to death. There is little doubt that Simmons was the instigator of the crime. Before its commission Simmons said he wanted to murder someone. In chilling, callous terms he talked about his plan, discussing it for the most part with two friends, Charles Benjamin and John Tessmer, then aged 15 and 16 respectively. Simmons proposed to commit burglary and murder by breaking and entering, tying up a victim, and throwing the victim off a bridge. Simmons assured his friends they could "get away with it" because they were minors.

The three met at about 2 a.m. on the night of the murder, but Tessmer left before the other two set out. (The State later charged Tessmer with conspiracy, but dropped the charge in exchange for his testimony against Simmons.) Simmons and Benjamin entered the home of the victim, Shirley Crook, after reaching through an open window and unlocking the back door. Simmons turned on a hallway light. Awakened, Mrs. Crook called out, "Who's there?" In response Simmons entered Mrs. Crook's bedroom, where he recognized her from a previous car accident involving them both. Simmons later admitted this confirmed his resolve to murder her.

Using duct tape to cover her eyes and mouth and bind her hands, the two perpetrators put Mrs. Crook in her minivan and drove to a state park. They reinforced the bindings, covered her head with a towel, and walked her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec River. There they tied her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrapped her whole face in duct tape and threw her from the bridge, drowning her in the waters below.

By the afternoon of September 9, Steven Crook had returned home from an overnight trip, found his bedroom in disarray, and reported his wife missing. On the same afternoon fishermen recovered the victim's body from the river. Simmons, meanwhile, was bragging about the killing, telling friends he had killed a woman "because the bitch seen my face."

I wonder if the victim's family feels that this young man "has a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in [his] whole environment." I wonder if the family is concerned about the awful "reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity" or if they much care that Mr. Simmons might not be "irredeemably depraved." I wonder about the fear of the poor woman who probably knew she was about to die in this completely senseless act of unspeakable barbarism and cruelty. I also wonder if Justice Kennedy and the rest of the majority would have written these words and decided as they did if that had been their wife or daughter who was thrown off the bridge. Somebody should ask them.