Is it wrong to put a juvenile on death row?

Families of victims, offenders weigh in on pending Supreme Court case.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A decade ago, Carol Ann and Tony Sievers lost Hope. Their daughter, Hope Denise Hall, was a bright, aspiring television news producer and young mother when she was raped and brutally murdered in her Virginia apartment.

Her killer was just a boy. Shermaine Ali Johnson was 16 when he killed Hope in 1994. Now he's one of 72 death-row inmates in the US who were convicted of capital murders committed when they were 16 or 17 years old.

Wednesday Mr. Johnson's death sentence - and the sentences of those other men waiting to die in American prisons - is being challenged before the US Supreme Court. In Roper v. Simmons, a case originating from the Supreme Court of Missouri, the court will decide whether executing juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

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Although the case will weigh the "national consensus" in the US, as the Missouri court put it, for the death penalty of minors, few people other than the inmates themselves have a more vested interest in the outcome of this case than the families of victims and offenders.

For Mr. Sievers, Hope's stepfather, the court is faced with a simple decision. "If you kill someone, you deserve to give your life," he says.

But for someone like Lee Bolton, whose son has been living on Texas death row for 9 years since being convicted for a murder committed when he was 17, "the death penalty is not the solution" to preventing juvenile crime. "It's wrong to kill a juvenile" because they aren't fully aware of the consequences of their actions, she says.

It's exactly those two views of the death penalty for juveniles that will be argued in the Simmons case.

In 1989, the Court ruled - in a 5-to-4 decision - that the US Constitution permitted states to sentence to death juveniles who were 16 and 17 at the time of their crimes. A year earlier, the justices had placed the age limit on executions at 15. What the court must weigh now is whether America's "standard of decency" has changed enough since then to deem the death penalty for all juveniles unconstitutional.

If the court were to decide that juvenile executions are unconstitutional, it would leave many victims' families feeling cheated. And it would spare the lives of a small percentage of death-row inmates and become a landmark victory for death-penalty opponents who have long decried the practice of executing juveniles.

"Across the globe, there is a revulsion [toward] executing youthful offenders," says Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), a national organization based in Cambridge, Mass., which represents family members of murder victims who oppose the death penalty.

American opinion has shifted against the death penalty for juveniles, says Mr. Cushing.

Many of the 38 states that still perform executions, says Cushing, now prohibit death sentences for offenders under 18. This year, Wyoming and South Dakota legislators outlawed the practice. Juries, too, seem less willing to impose death on minors. While 15 juveniles received death sentences in 1999, only two received the ultimate sentence in 2003, according to the American Bar Association. And only six states have executed juvenile offenders over the past 14 years, according to the Missouri decision.

Cushing and his group filed a brief supporting the Missouri court, which ruled that the death penalty for Christopher Simmons was unconstitutional. They wrote that "victims' emotions cannot justify the use of the death penalty because the legal system's purpose is not to heal emotional wounds." Simmons was 17 years old when he murdered Shirley Cook in 1993.

"Legal outcomes do not cure the emotional trauma faced by murder victims' families or bring emotional 'closure,' " the group wrote.

For Carol Ann Sievers, part of the healing process after Hope's death meant being able to forgive Johnson.

Although she still supports the death penalty in his case, she would be satisfied with whatever the court decides in the Simmons case as long as Johnson is never released from jail.

"I'm at peace," says Ms. Sievers, who now serves as the victims' rights advocate on the Virginia Parole Board.

Victims and their families of inmates cope in any number of ways. Many relatives turn to religion for answers.

"Prayer is the solution. That's what works for me, and that's what works for my son," says Ms. Bolton, whose son, Nanon Williams, was convicted for a murder during a 1992 drug deal gone awry in Houston. His sentence has since gained international attention amid accusations that ballistics evidence in the trial was mishandled.

Although she maintains that her son is innocent, Bolton still holds out hope that the court will do away with execution for juvenile offenders.

"If they at least have to be 18 to vote or go off to war, they should be at least 18 before you can kill them," she says. "I just really think those lives need to be saved."

After Bill Pelke found out his 78-year-old grandmother had been beaten and stabbed to death by a group of girls in Gary, Ind., he initially went along with the prosecutors and other family members who supported the death penalty for the group's ringleader, 15-year-old Paula Cooper. In 1986, she became the youngest inmate in the US on death row.

But Mr. Pelke later changed his mind about the sentence. He had what he calls a "transformation" while praying one day in November 1986. He became convinced that his grandmother would have been appalled that such a young girl would be put to death.

Although not all of his family members agreed with his change of heart, including his grandfather, Pelke went to work to overturn Ms. Cooper's death sentence, which was eventually commuted to life in prison when the Indiana Supreme Court changed the minimum age for juvenile executions from 10 to 16 in 1987. It's now 18. He remains an outspoken death-penalty opponent.

But religion has also been used by death-penalty proponents as a justification for such severe punishment. "I do believe - because I'm Catholic - the old adage from the Bible that says, 'An eye for an eye,' " says Mr. Sievers.

Although Cushing says courts should weigh the impact on victims' families when deciding penalties for the worst juvenile offenders, that's not reason enough to pursue the death penalty, he says.

Many prosecutors in states with the toughest death-penalty laws would agree with Cushing. There are societal and legal issues to consider on that point, says Timothy Murtaugh, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry Killgore. In capital-murder cases, the job of the state's prosecutor is to pursue capital offenses vigorously, and that means going after the death penalty for juveniles.

"The vast majority of 16- and 17-year-olds know it's wrong to kill another human being," Murtaugh says.

"A bright-line rule categorically exempting 16- and 17-year-olds from the death penalty - no matter how elaborate the plot, how sinister the killing, or how sophisticated the cover-up - would be arbitrary at best, and downright perverse at worst," wrote Alabama Attorney General Troy King in a brief in support of Roper, the petitioner in the case.

Still, some victims of even the most vile and premeditated murders have forgiven young killers.

Regina Hockett's daughter, Adriane, was shot and killed in a Tennessee parking lot moments after she left her mother's side. The two men who killed Adriane were looking to kill a white person to "put themselves on the map." Instead they killed Adriane, a 12-year-old black girl.

"I thought it was wrong for them to take my daughter's life. Why should I think it's OK for the state to take their lives," asks Ms. Hockett. "The day after her life was taken, I was able to forgive them."

Adriane's killers are now on Tennessee's death row for another murder.

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