WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles Tuesday, ruling that it was excessive and cruel to execute a person who was under 18 when the crime was committed.
Juveniles are less mature than adults and, no matter how heinous their crimes, they are not among "the worst offenders" who deserve to die, the 5-4 majority said.
Three years ago, the court struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded criminals; the logic of that ruling called for a similar stance on juvenile offenders, the court said.
Tuesday's decision means that 72 convicted murderers on death rows in 12 states will be resentenced. The ruling will also prohibit execution of defendants in pending cases -- including Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the snipers who terrorized Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs in 2002.
Because he was 17 when the crimes occurred, Malvo was tried in Virginia -- which permitted the execution of juveniles. But in his first trial, in Fairfax County, he was sentenced to life in prison. Until Tuesday, prosecutors hoping to win a death sentence had planned to retry Malvo in another Virginia county where one of the shootings occurred.
The Constitution bars "cruel and unusual punishments," and the majority opinion -- quoting Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958 -- said this rule must be judged by "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
By that standard, the practice of executing young killers has become rare, outmoded and unwarranted, the majority said.
In the U.S., only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have executed juveniles in the last decade.
Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo and China have executed juvenile offenders since 1990, the court said, but those nations since have disavowed the practice.
"The stark reality is that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, an appointee of President Reagan, wrote for the majority.
"It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty," he said. "While not controlling our outcome, [it] does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions."
That comment drew a strong rebuke from Justice Antonin Scalia -- another Reagan appointee -- whose dissent accused the majority of changing the Constitution to fit its own shifting views of what was proper. He said international opinion should play no role in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
"The court proclaims itself the sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards -- and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures," Scalia said. "I do not believe that the meaning of our [Constitution] should be determined by the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners."
Scalia said the court should have allowed juries to continue to decide whether young killers deserved to die.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined Kennedy's opinion setting 18 as the minimum age for capital punishment. They noted that in nearly every state, 18 is the minimum age for voting, serving on juries and obtaining marriage licenses without parental permission.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's dissent.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's usual swing vote, dissented separately. She said she agreed with Kennedy that the court should look to "evolving standards of decency," but she disagreed that there was a "national consensus" against executing young killers.
Since 1976, when the court upheld a new generation of capital punishment laws, the justices have been considering limits on such sentences.
In 1977, the court abolished the death penalty for crimes short of murder. Eleven years later, it ruled that capital punishment could not be imposed on anyone 15 or younger -- although in 1989 it upheld death sentences for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Human rights activists and death penalty foes hailed the court's ruling Tuesday.
"This decision confirms what we all know and what science recently has proven: Kids are different," said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Kids are different from adults, and by their very nature cannot qualify as the 'worst of the worst' standard used by some to justify a sentence of death."
Former President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, also praised the outcome. "With this ruling, the United States ... joins the community of nations, which uniformly renounces this practice," Carter said.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was "very encouraged" that the court was moving toward abolishing capital punishment.