Wednesday, March 02, 2005
The magic second hand: For those young people who've never seen an analog clock, the second hand counts off the seconds. In a quiet room you can hear each of the 60 ticks that culminate in the minute hand moving from, say 11:59:59 p.m. to 12:00:00 a.m.
There's some magic in that second hand, because with just one tick of that hand, moral judgement and responsibility are miraculously bestowed upon teenagers.
The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that "evolving standards of decency" (read: because we feel like it) prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds.
It should come as little surprise that the Supreme Court has decided that they really would prefer to be legislators. Fifteen years ago, the Court upheld the death penalty for juveniles as not in conflict with the Eighth Amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." In the intervening time, four states have changed their laws to prohibit the execution of perpetrators who committed their crimes as minors. Of the states that have the death penalty, until yesterday, 47 percent allowed the execution of juveniles. Yet the Court "sensed" a trend away from it and decided to hurry it along.
More than a decade ago, I wrote in an opinion piece for Cal Poly's Mustang Daily about magic scissors. How a fetus turns into a baby the moment that the umbilical cord is cut. The Court majority believes in the power of the magic second hand.
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."
Simmons was 17 years, 3 months old when he committed this heinous crime. He committed it with the belief that he would not be severely punished because he was not 18 years old yet. Sadly, he has turned out to be right.
Do those justices in their mahogany paneled offices really believe that with nine more months of life experience, Simmons would have realized that tying up and drowning a woman is wrong?
A friend-of-the-court brief [PDF format] powerfully detailed other juvenile criminals and their heinous acts that will now allow them to live out the rest of their natural lives -- a kindness denied their victims.
How long will it be until a 17-year-364-day-old teen goes on a murder spree and the main point of contention in court becomes whether the victim(s) was killed before or after the clock strikes twelve?
There's nothing special about the scissors. There's nothing special about the second hand.
I encourage everyone to read Scalia's dissent. Those who watched Scalia's debate on C-SPAN last month with Justice Steven Breyer on the place of international law in American jurisprudence got a preview of Scalia's disdain for the practice -- "sophistry" as he describes it.
The Court should either profess its willingness to reconsider all these matters in light of the views of foreigners, or else it should cease putting forth foreigners' views as part of the reasoned basis of its decisions. To invoke alien law when it agrees with one's own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, is not reasoned decisionmaking, but sophistry. [emphasis in original]
As Scalia notes, the majority used as support for its decision international treaties that our elected representatives have refused to ratify. By the court's action, it has effectively implemented those treaties -- an usurpation of the Senate's Constitutional role.
I don't know if there is a way to communicate to the Court just how odious the reliance on international law -- specifically European law -- is to most Americans. Impeachment for violating their oath to uphold the American Constitution -- not the EU constitution -- sounds like a good idea, but would likely get nowhere.
This decision-making method should disgust both Republicans and Democrats, after all, it is an illegal delegation of American sovereignty to unelected, unaccountable European judges.