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In executing youths, US stands alone

January broke the record for such deaths, illustrating the gulf between US, world.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2000

Although they never met one another, Steven Roach, Douglas Thomas, and Glen McGinnis will forever share a grim page in United States history.

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All three were put to death as convicted murderers in January. All three were 17 years old at the time they committed the crimes that landed them on death row.

It marked the most juvenile offenders put to death in a single month since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

The relative obscurity of the three executions, which were barely noticed by the national media, points up a growing chasm between the US and the rest of the international community over adult sanctions like the death penalty for teenagers convicted of adult crimes.

"Every other country in the world has done away with this in the last five to 10 years, including China," says Victor Streib, a lawyer and law school dean at Ohio Northern University in Ada, who has studied the issue for a quarter-century. "We are left out here by ourselves, and one has to ask why?"

At its core, the issue is whether juvenile killers have the judgment and are mature enough to understand all ramifications of their crimes at the time they commit them. If they lack an adult level of judgment, the argument goes, why should they face an adult level of punishment?

The international standard

That's the reasoning behind the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that bars executions of anyone who commits a crime when younger than 18. The United States is the only country in the world to refuse to sign the accord.

(Somalia also has not signed, but it lacks a working legislature to authorize the treaty, analysts say. And Iran, which signed the UN treaty, nonetheless executed a 17-year-old recently, according to human rights reports. Outside the US, it is the only reported execution of a juvenile offender in the past year.)

While the international community views the juvenile death penalty as a question of human rights, in America, executing teenage criminals is good politics, analysts say.

"The death penalty is very political," says Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "It is as much part of the political system as the criminal-justice system."

Many victims' rights groups favor tough sanctions whenever a criminal commits a particularly horrendous crime. They argue that in cases when juveniles commit vicious murders in which they show no compassion for their victims, the government should also show no compassion to the murderer.

Some crimes are just so awful, they argue, that they deserve the ultimate punishment.

Opponents counter that teen killers are different than adult killers. "Even many supporters of the death penalty will draw the line at 18," says Mr. Dieter. "It has to do with the death penalty being reserved for the worst of the worst offenders, those most responsible for their actions in terms of understanding the consequences, those most in control of their choices."

Dieter adds, "Teenagers are somewhat there, but they are not fully in adulthood. We recognize that by saying that they can't vote, can't serve on a jury, buy alcohol, be drafted. There are a lot of lines we draw for which 18 is a bright line."

What the court says

Roughly a decade ago, the US Supreme Court drew a bright line in deciding two juvenile death-penalty cases. The court ruled in one case that 15 was too young an age to execute a convicted murderer, but in a second case it ruled that state laws authorizing the execution of those 16 and older did not offend the Constitution.