In executing youths, US stands alone

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

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

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.

In writing the majority opinion in the second case, Justice Antonin Scalia answered critics who suggest that anyone who isn't old enough to drive, vote, or drink alcohol isn't old enough to receive the death penalty. "It is ... absurd to think that one must be mature enough to drive carefully, to drink responsibly, or to vote intelligently, in order to be mature enough to understand that murdering another human being is profoundly wrong,..." he wrote.

Justice Scalia said that age-specific voting, driving, and drinking statutes "do not represent a social judgment that all persons under the designated ages are not responsible enough to drive, to drink, or to vote, but at most a judgment that the vast majority are not." Such laws are not individualized maturity tests, but rather general rules that apply to all teens.

"The criminal-justice system, however, does provide individualized testing," he said. The Constitution requires that juries determine individual guilt and that there be an individualized determination of an appropriate sentence based on laws passed by an elected state legislature.

Is parole an option?

Today there are roughly 70 death-row residents in the US who committed murder prior to their 18th birthday. Death-penalty opponents say it would in no way undermine the criminal-justice system to sentence such murderers, instead, to life without parole.

Some 22 states have statutes authorizing the execution of murderers under 18. But there is movement toward ending the practice. Since the mid-1990s, Montana, Maryland, New York, and Kansas all adopted 18 as the appropriate age cutoff.

"Whether it is in my lifetime or not, we are certainly in the last era of the juvenile death penalty," says Mr. Streib. "All patterns are that it is fading away."

"It almost has to happen quietly," says Dieter. But he notes that it is happening. "We are moving in the right direction."

Illinois takes a closer look

Moreover, evidence is growing that the death penalty, in general, is undergoing closer scrutiny in some parts of the US. Yesterday, Illinois Gov. George Ryan was expected to halt all executions in the state pending a review of death-penalty procedures there. In Illinois, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 13 men sentenced to die were later found to be wrongly convicted.

As for the three young men executed in January, Thomas shot and killed his girlfriend's parents, Roach killed an elderly neighbor while robbing her, and McGinnis gunned down a mother of two while robbing a coin laundry business. Thomas and Roach were executed in Virginia. McGinnis's death sentence was carried out in Texas.

A deterrent, or not?

Although some public officials say such executions may have a deterrent effect on other potential teen killers, Streib says this view ignores the way troubled teens really think. "They are impulsive, they don't plan ahead. They think they are immortal, they don't fear death," he says. "Treating them like adults just assumes that they think like adults."

Streib adds: "Prosecutors say they want to send [potential teen killers] a message, and I tell them these kids are not tuned in to our station. They will not hear your message.

"Kids are not deterred by death because they don't perceive it," he says. "And so many kids living on the street don't plan to live to 18 anyway."

Some experts argue, in fact, that the possibility of a long prison sentence - as opposed to a death sentence - can deter troubled teens because they can more readily understand the deprivations of life behind bars.

*Tomorrow: why Yemen, an Islamic nation with four times as many guns per person as the US, decided to ban the death penalty for juveniles.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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