Death penalty for juveniles under scrutiny

Texas is scheduled to execute the third person in four months for a crime committed under age 18.

In America, teenagers under the age of 18 can't drink, vote, or sit on a jury. The public has come to believe that it takes children time to develop mentally, to mature fully before they can make decisions on their own.

But in many death-penalty states, that reasoning changes if a teenager under the age of 18 commits murder. Prosecutors and victim's families contend that the child knew exactly what he or she was doing, and should be held fully accountable for those actions.

Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in Texas, where Wednesday the state is scheduled to execute another juvenile offender – the third time in four months. In fact, two-thirds of US juvenile offenders put to death in the past decade have been in Texas, adding a new dimension to debate over the Lone Star State's hard-line tradition of capital punishment.

Renewed focus

This latest execution – which could still be postponed by a last-minute appeal – comes as the nation is paying renewed attention to the death penalty. Recent studies on brain development, public reaction over DNA-based exonerations, and the recent federal ban on executing the mentally ill have all contributed to a growing sense of unease with the current use of the death penalty.

Against this backdrop, views on execution of juveniles vary. Some experts say people are aware of – and should be held accountable for – their deadly actions.

Others foresee a shift in the "national consensus" – a key factor that the US Supreme Court considers when deciding capital-punishment cases.

"We are really in the last days of the juvenile death penalty. It is standing on a few slender reeds, but it's just got to fall," says Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada who's done extensive research on juvenile murderers.

Here in Texas, experts say it's understandable that the number of executions of juvenile offenders is higher than in other states, because the number of executions overall is higher.

But others contend that Texas is unique when it comes to killing murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles.

"It's not just that Texas is leading the way. It's that Texas is out there by itself," says Professor Streib.

He says while other states may allow executions of juvenile offenders – 22 to be precise – most of them are not actively involved in the process. Some are even backing away from it altogether.

This year, for instance, Indiana upped its minimum age for imposing the death penalty to 18. Montana did so in 1999, and 10 other states have recently introduced bills that would make 18 the legal limit. This amounts to the most legislative attention the issue has received in the past 20 years, says Streib.

But death-penalty advocates say the facts of each case should be considered before passing judgment on the entire system.

"Juries have an amazing ability to distinguish between horrible acts of murder and immaturity," says Joshua Marquis, an Oregon district attorney and a board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

On Texas death row

Toronto Patterson, the inmate scheduled to die on Wednesday, was convicted at age 17 for shooting to death his cousin and her two young daughters, because he wanted her expensive, custom car wheels.

After the verdict was announced in 1995, Assistant District Attorney Jason January said that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment.

"I don't think I've seen another case in my 10-year career here that had this combination of senseless motive and innocent victims," he said.

The US has a long history of executing murderers who commit their crimes under the age of 18. Since 1642, an estimated 364 juvenile offenders have been put to death by states and the federal government.

The issue never garnered much attention until the early 1980s, a few years after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. In 1988, the US Supreme Court ruled that children under the age of 16 could not be put to death.

Currently, 17 states have set the minimum age at 16, and five states have set the age at 17. Texas is one of those five states.

Streib says while some states have upped their minimum ages since 1988, no states have considered lowering them. In addition, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for juveniles less frequently, and juries are less willing to impose it. Last year, only five juvenile offenders were sentenced to death – half of the numbers over the past six years. So far this year, only one juvenile offender has been sentenced to die.

High-court shift

Many death-penalty opponents were buoyed by this summer's ruling by the US Supreme Court, which said that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a mentally retarded murderer. Many of the same concerns about executing low-IQ inmates – the inability to control impulses, a mind not fully developed, and mental immaturity – also surface when speaking about juveniles.

"Children are just a completely different class from adults, and they need to be protected," says Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Amnesty International's program to abolish the death penalty.

She points to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids countries from killing those who commit crimes as juveniles. The US has refused to ratify it, despite international pressure.

In fact, besides the US, only Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have held such executions over the past three years – and Congo now says it will no longer engage in the practice.

"We're not in very good company," says Ms. Gunawardena-Vaughn.

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