WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an Oklahoma appeal that death penalty opponents considered their best hope of reopening a high court examination of juvenile executions.
The action, taken without comment, seemed to put off for now speculation that the justices would soon bar states from executing juvenile death row inmates.
Only a handful of states have put to death people who committed their crimes when they were under 18, a politically charged practice in America and internationally.
Last fall, four of the nine justices complained that executing young killers violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and is a ``shameful practice.''
``The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,'' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in October in an opinion, joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The four justices, the more liberal wing of the court, had the votes to force their colleagues to hear arguments in the Oklahoma case. But, by refusing to do that, the justices signaled that there is no fifth vote to strike down juvenile executions. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative, is considered a crucial swing vote.
The Supreme Court has allowed the death penalty to be imposed on killers who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes. Lawyers for Oklahoma inmate Scott Allen Hain said the minimum age should be raised to 18.
``While they appear to be fully-grown physically and may seem to be functioning as adults, their judgment and impulse-control are simply not that of adults,'' attorney Steven Presson told justices in filings.
Hain was 17 when he and an older friend abducted and killed a young couple in 1987. They locked the victims in their car trunk and set it afire.
Oklahoma assistant attorney general Robert Whittaker told justices that violent crime by juveniles has been increasing, and states need tools to punish the offenders.
``Homicidal crimes by juveniles have continued to confront the American public, from the school shootings in Columbine to the Washington Beltway snipers,'' he wrote in court papers.
Whittaker said charges against a 17-year-old in the sniper case ``may well be a catalyst for further national debate and legislative activity.'' He also said that there was no public outrage over the decision to put Lee Boyd Malvo on trial in Virginia, where he could receive the death penalty, instead of others states like Maryland that do not execute 17-year-olds.
Malvo and an older man who treated him like a son have been linked to 19 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court has limited executions. Most recently, the justices abolished executions for the mentally retarded last summer.
``Both juvenile and mentally retarded offenders have `the mind of a child,' albeit often in the body of an adult,'' Presson said.
The case is Hain v. Mullin, 02-6438.