U.S. Supreme Court rules against juvenile executions

Another step forward

By: Marlene Martin

Undoubtedly, there was a collective sigh of relief when 72 juvenile offenders got the news that they no longer faced the death penalty due to the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision to ban the practice of sending juvenile offenders to their death.

But the decision came too late to change the fate of 22 juvenile offenders who have been executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Two cases in particular stand out.

One was Gary Graham (known as Shaka Sankofa), whose case drew national attention with his overwhelming claim of innocence. Coming in the midst of the 2000 presidential campaign, national nightly newscasts broadcast the countdown to his execution, with all eyes watching the courts and the then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, to see if there would be mercy.

But unlike his recent statement in the Terri Schiavo case--"When there is even a shred of doubt, one should err on the side of life"--Bush had a different message when it came to a Black, outspoken, radical death row prisoner: "He had his day in court." It didnft matter that on that "day in court," the jury never heard the testimony of eyewitnesses pointing to his innocence.

The other case is Napoleon Beazley. He was 17 when he was sent to death row, convicted of killing the father of an appeals court judge. It was clear to everyone that who he killed--and not the crime itself--is what got him the death penalty. Nathanial was Black, accused of killing a white person whose son was prominent in the legal community, so it didn't matter that Napoleon had no previous criminal record and expressed remorse for what he had done.

Prosecutors only seek the death penalty in 2 percent of all murders committed in this country. How this 2 percent is selected is an example of the outright racism and class bias of the death penalty. Both Shaka and Napoleon were young Black men, accused of killing whites, and both were too poor to afford legal representation at their trials.

Shaka and Napoleon were among a relatively small number of juvenile offenders put to death, but they share these other factors with the great majority of death row prisoners.

It is about time that the Supreme Court did away with the despicable practice of executing juvenile offenders. But a look at the cases of those who were saved from death row by the decision--and those who were killed before the justices ruled--shows why it needs to go further.

It was deplorable that the death penalty system sent juvenile offenders to the execution chamber, and it is a welcome step forward that the Supreme Court recognized all the reasons why this is a barbaric practice that should be ended.

But there are remain many, many deplorable aspects to the death penalty system--it all too often condemns the innocent, those sent to death row are disproportionately people of color and almost always poor. As a society, we can do better, much better.

We abolitionists need to take this victory and use it to propel our movement forward. The more exposure there is about the true facts of the death penalty--how it is meted out and who suffers from it--the more opinion will turn against it. And the halls of the Supreme Court are not immune to the shifting attitude of the U.S. population to the death penalty, as this decision shows. Once again, the justices said that they would ban a practice they previously upheld because "standards of decency"--in other words, what society is willing to tolerate from its criminal justice system--have "evolved."

Coming three years after the court banned the executions of the mentally retarded, this decision shows that the glaring flaws of the death penalty are being exposed. We need to take time for a collective sigh of relief. But the 5-4 vote was too close for our liking--we need to push forward to dismantle the entire apparatus of death.