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Is it wrong to put a juvenile on death row?

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

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 2004

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.

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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.

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.