James J. Kilpatrick

Suppose we talk today about the murder of Melissa Mills and the trial of Renaldo Adams. An ugly crime has led to a troublesome sentence.

This is undisputed: In Montgomery, Ala., a little before 11 o'clock on the night of Aug. 20, 1997, Adams burst into the home of the Andrew Mills family. Mills had dropped off to sleep in the living room. His pregnant wife, "Missy," and their three young children were asleep in their rooms.

Adams threatened Mills with a boning knife, robbed him of what cash he had on hand, and stupidly ordered him to go to an automatic banking machine and get some more. As soon as Mills left, Adams raped his wife, stabbed her repeatedly and killed her unborn child. Mills soon returned with police. Missy Mills died that night of massive wounds to her neck, liver and lungs. An Alabama jury found Adams guilty of murder in the first degree and voted 10-2 for his execution.

Those are the facts. This is another fact: At the time of the crime in 1997, Adams was 17 years and 2 months old.

The usual appeals ensued. In 2003 the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the death sentence. Then the case languished while the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument and pondered the similar case of young Christopher Simmons in Missouri. He too had been sentenced to death for murder. On March 1 a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside Simmons' sentence with a sweeping decree: Persons under the age of 18 may no longer be sentenced to death in the United States. Such punishment has become "cruel and unusual" under the Constitution.

The facts in the case of Christopher Simmons were as appalling as the facts in the case of Renaldo Adams. Young Simmons and an accomplice kidnapped Shirley Crook in the middle of the night, bound her in duct tape, and threw her into the Meramec River a few miles south of St. Louis. They killed her for the fun of it, after boasting that they would never be punished because they were only 17. The accomplice turned state's evidence. Simmons was sentenced to death.

Missouri's Supreme Court, after first affirming, reversed itself in 2003 and the case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court. There it led to the high court's 5-4 decision a year ago in which Justice Anthony Kennedy laid down the new rule on capital punishment: In a warmly concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens praised the alternative life sentence as a manifestation of the court's "evolving standards of decency."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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