Case for Executing Juvenile Killers May Be Weakening

Los Angeles Times, Aug. 30, 2002

WASHINGTON — Death penalty opponents, encouraged that three Supreme Court justices are ready to consider limiting capital punishment, said Thursday they were hopeful the execution of a Texas man who committed murder when he was a teenager might be the last of its kind.

“It’s very heartening,” said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It shows there is a growing momentum to address this issue, even though it came too late for Toronto Patterson,” the Dallas man who was put to death Wednesday for shooting three of his relatives when he was 17.

“We are in the last days of the death penalty for juveniles,” predicted professor Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University Law School. “Texas is the only jurisdiction in the nation, really the only jurisdiction in the world, carrying out these executions. And one rogue state shouldn’t be allowed to continue it.”

Thanks in part to recent Supreme Court rulings, optimism has surged through the ranks of the anti-capital punishment movement this year.

In June, the high court voted to end executions of mentally retarded killers, saying that the nation and the world had come to view the practice as cruel and unusual punishment. The 6-3 majority pointed to a wave of state laws exempting retarded people from the ultimate punishment.

Hours before Patterson received the lethal injection, Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the court’s opinion concerning the mentally retarded, said he and his colleagues should consider a similar ban for juvenile murderers.

“Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity,” Stevens wrote.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer issued a short statement saying they agreed with Stevens.

It takes the votes of four justices to hear a case, and five to make a majority. In late September, when the justices meet to consider appeals that arrived during the summer recess, they will have before them several cases from death row inmates who were juveniles at the time of their crimes.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “The missing element is a few more states to abolish it on their own. And that should be enough to get one or two more justices to weigh in.”

California sets 18 as the minimum age for an offender to be eligible for the death penalty.

Supporters of capital punishment say the current system allows juries to consider the issue on a case-by-case basis.

“Some 17-year-olds are just as mature as a 25-year old,” said Dudley Sharp of Justice for All, a pro-death penalty group based in Houston. “The jury should look at the individual situation and make the decision.”

In all death penalty cases, the defense can point to the murderer’s youth as a reason for granting mercy.

“States have a right to decide how they are going to punish coldblooded killers,” said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Advocates for the mentally retarded built momentum for their cause over the last decade. They persuaded lawmakers in 18 states to exempt mentally retarded defendants from capital punishment.

They argued that retarded people often lack the ability to control their impulses and to foresee the consequences of their actions. For that reason, they argued, these defendants do not fit in the category of the most culpable killers.

The Supreme Court adopted that view and said the nation’s “evolving standard of decency” called for sparing defendants who are mentally retarded.

In the coming year, death penalty opponents hope to build the same momentum for exempting teenage murderers. They say lawmakers in at least 10 more states will be pressed to raise the minimum age to 18 for a capital punishment case.

In all, 38 states authorize the death penalty, and 22 of them allow it to be imposed on those who commit murder while under age 18. But such death sentences are rare.

Nationwide, about 3,700 convicted murderers are condemned to death. Among these, 80 were under 18 when they committed their crimes, about 2% of the total.

“There are a good number of states where this legislation stands a good chance of moving this year,” Dieter said. “And there is a signal being sent [by the Supreme Court] that they should act.”

Executions of juvenile killers are rarer yet. In the last decade, 16 people have been put to death for murders they committed when they were age 16 or 17. And of those, 10 of the executions took place in Texas.

Besides the United States, only Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen say they have carried out executions of teenage murderers, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Yemen and Pakistan recently announced they were ending the practice.

The leaders of the European Union had strongly urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to spare the life of Patterson, despite the brutality of his crime.

On a June day in 1995, Patterson went to the home of a cousin, apparently intent on stealing the gold and chrome wheels on her BMW. Shot dead in the living room were Kimberly Brewer and her two children, ages 6 and 3.

In his final statement, Patterson, who was 24 when he died and denied committing the crime, said he was “sorry for the pain” that he caused his family and friends

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 30, 2002.
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