Monday, February 2, 2004
America exiles justice when executing kids
EDITORIAL | By Tom Teepen
Here´s a scary thought: The Supreme Court in the late ’80s barred the execution of juveniles 15 and younger and now will revisit the issue of executing 16- and 17-year-olds ó but perhaps only to nail down its past approval of this barbarism, rather than to rethink it.
The justices will review a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that executing youth offends the Constitution´s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Missouri judges cited the high court´s 2002 decision ending the execution of the mentally retarded, a ruling founded substantially on a finding that most states have already quit the practice in moral revulsion.
The Missouri court came to a similar conclusion about executing youths under age 18, and the court was clearly right on that point. Of the 38 states that execute, 17 bar the death penalty for offenders under 18. Even most of the states that retain the option shun it. Only Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas have killed a juvenile offender in the last decade. Only two juveniles were sentenced to death last year, a 15-year low.
The widening unease with the practice was dramatized recently when a jury, after convicting serial sniper Lee Malvo, who was 17 when the murders were committed, sentenced him to life in prison.
The sentence caught the U.S. Justice Department by surprise. Execution-happy under President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department had chosen to bring the charges in Virginia rather than Maryland precisely because it expected to get a hanging jury there.
The recoil of much of the country from juvenile executions leaves juveniles in states that still use the option subject more to the vagaries of geography than to a coherent system of justice, exactly the sort of whimsicality the Constitution rejects. Texas, for instance, has killed 13 of the 22 juveniles executed since capital punishment was resumed in 1976 and accounts for a third of the 73 juveniles on the nationís death rows.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are capable of appalling crimes – the Missouri case is emphatically an example – but even so they are still emotionally and developmentally immature, less able than adults to understand their own actions and the implications. They cannot decently be held to the same account adults can be.
The United States is out of step with just about every other nation in persisting with the death penalty, but on the matter of juvenile execution, it is absolutely alone. No other nation officially endorses the practice.
How the issue goes now will depend upon Justices Sandra Day O´Connor and Anthony Kennedy. They were part of the six-member majority that ended the execution of the retarded but both at the time specified that they didn´t believe the same reasoning would surely apply to juveniles, though they left the possibility open.
Worrisomely, the court´s hard-core conservatives may be taking up the Missouri case just to keep a momentum against juvenile execution, based on the retardation ruling, from developing in lower courts.
The Supreme Court review aside, it says something about us – and what it says is not pretty – that we are the only nation that rejects the U.N.´s Convention on the Rights of the Child and that we do so just because we want to keep killing children.
Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.