Execution for juvenile crime: legal but controversial

Unless Georgia's governor intervenes, a man faces death penalty today for rape and murder as 17-year-old.

When Alexander Williams' mom testified at her son's trial, she recalled that he liked to read comic books. His girlfriend remembered that he was nice to her when they went roller skating. Nowhere was there testimony about a childhood that allegedly included beatings and, possibly, sexual abuse from his father - events that might have had some bearing on why he, as a 17-year-old, raped and killed a 16-year-old girl.

Tomorrow, Williams, 32, is scheduled for execution unless Georgia gives him last-minute clemency. No matter what happens, the Williams case has reopened the debate over executing people who committed crimes as juveniles.

In addition, some legislatures are now reconsidering the death penalty for minors in the wake of an Illinois study critical of its own executions. And, in hearings, psychologists are telling legislatures that new scientific research indicates that adolescents are not fully mentally developed until the age of 18.

"It is a convergence of issues - legal, international and scientific - that have caused legislators and policy makers throughout the nation to reconsider if it is a just thing to execute someone for a crime committed under the age of 18," says Stephen Harper of the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Williams, there are four other juvenile offenders facing imminent execution as they have exhausted their legal appeals. If all five are executed, it would be the most in any year. A near-record of 82 adolescent offenders are waiting on death rows around the country.

Waiting on Supreme Court

This week, proponents of abolishing the death penalty for juvenile offenders will be watching the Supreme Court closely as it hears arguments regarding the death penalty and the mentally retarded. "If the Supreme Court came out in favor of a prohibition on executing the mentally retarded, I would want to read that language carefully to see if there is any language we can use," says Robert Hirshon, the president of the American Bar Association.

The ABA takes no position on the death penalty, but objects to executing individuals who committed crimes as minors.

"Our society recognizes that juveniles are less mature, less able to exercise good judgment, more susceptible to environmental influence, so they are less culpable than adults," says Mr. Hirshon. "To the extent that mentally retarded individuals have some of the same attributes, some of the same arguments can be made. So the words of the court's opinion will be very important in providing lawyers with what it's thinking about juvenile executions."

However, in 1989, the court ruled that the death penalty for adolescents over 16 years-of-age was legal. Countering arguments that someone who is not old enough to drive, vote, or drink should not be eligible for the death penalty, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "It is absurd to think that one must be mature enough to drive carefully, to drink responsibly, or to vote intelligently, in order to understand that murdering another human being is profoundly wrong...."

Opponents of making changes contend it should be up to juries, weighing all the evidence, to determine whether an adolescent knows the difference between right and wrong.

"No one disputes that some 16-and 17- year-olds are more mature than some 25- year-old murderers," says Dudley Sharp, resource director for Justice For All, an advocacy group based in Houston, Texas. "I see no reason why a jury shouldn't have some of those cases."

Some states consider ban

However, there are now five states - Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri - which are considering ending the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Some of these are surprising since they are from conservative states, which have a law-and-order bent to their legislatures.

Earlier this month in Indiana, antiadolescent death penalty legislation passed its Senate by a 40 to 8 vote.

Paula Sites of the Indiana Public Defender Counsel in Indianapolis says that one of the deciding factors in getting the legislation through the senate was testimony about youth brain development.

"There is new medical research that shows impulse control, judgment, and understanding of risk-taking doesn't take place until aged 18," she says.

Burden of scientific proof

However, Mr. Sharp says brain science is not that accurate in determining maturity. "There is no computer that can decide everything," he says.

In fact, he is skeptical of many defense claims that are made regarding clients.

For example, he is doubtful of child abuse claims in the case of Alexander Williams, the Georgia juvenile on death row. "It is merely alleged he was immature and abused," he says. "I have no idea if it's true."

But lawyers familiar with Williams call him a very disturbed individual. (Neither the Georgia Attorney General's office nor the prosecutor in the case returned phone calls.)

"There is no question he suffers from delusions," says a lawyer involved in the case. "They are going to have to give him drugs so he's aware enough to be put to death."

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