Stop Executing Juveniles

Supreme Court Dodges This Important Issue

By: Julien Ball and Marlene Martin

With Justice John Paul Stevens commenting in a recent opinion that "the court should revisit the issue of the death penalty for crimes committed while under the age of 18," abolitionists had every reason to believe that the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders. But shamefully, the court decided to shelve this important issue--which means that more juvenile offenders will be sent along the conveyor belt to death.

Twenty-two states currently allow the execution of juvenile offenders, making the U.S. one of the few countries in the world to allow this practice. Since 1998, only Iran, Congo, Pakistan and the U.S. have executed juvenile offenders.

One case that sparked renewed attention to this issue was that of Toronto Patterson, who was 17 at the time of the murder that he was convicted of. Patterson is one of 13 juvenile offenders who have been executed in Texas, which has accounted for two-thirds of these executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty. In August, the Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Patterson, and he was put to death, but Stevens’ dissenting opinion gave abolitionists hope that the issue would be revisited.

Yet in a bitterly disputed 5-4 decision in October, the high court decided not to hear a new case that could have opened up the issue for a decision. This would have been the latest step in what the Washington Post called "a reexamination of the death penalty begun in earnest last year"--which produced a ban on executions of the mentally retarded. "The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Stevens wrote in the dissenting opinion of the four-judge minority.

The Supreme Court’s dodge is especially disappointing given the declining support for juvenile executions. A Gallup poll released in May showed that 69 percent of people opposed the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Even in Texas, where support for the death penalty is high, an overwhelming majority oppose these executions.Ten states have introduced legislation to raise the minimum age of the death penalty to 18. "Given the declining sentencing rate, the increased legislative activity and the continued international pressure, these may be the last days of the juvenile death penalty," said Victor Streib, a professor who researches this issue. "It has already all but disappeared around the world."

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of executing the mentally retarded, an important question was raised regarding juvenile offenders: If it’s unjust to execute those with lowered mental capacity, isn’t it also wrong to execute juveniles, who society agrees do not have the developed judgment of an adult?

Also troublesome is the fact that almost all teenage offenders have had terrible childhoods. Take the case of Glen McGinnis, who was convicted of robbery and murder when he was 17 and sentenced to death in Texas. According to Amnesty International Canada, McGinnis was raised in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother, who worked as a prostitute and was addicted to crack. When he was eight or nine years old, she spent time in jail for drug possession. Glen was abused severely by his stepfather--beaten with an electric cord, raped, hit in the head with a baseball bat and burned on his stomach with hot grease. On three occasions, Child Protective Services intervened. At age 11, Glen ran away from home and lived on the streets, shoplifting to get food and clothes. Shortly before he was executed in 2000, Glen said in an interview that he didn’t want to use the abuse that marked his childhood to make excuses for his crime--but he wondered "what would have been" if he had not lived on the streets for most of his teenage years.

On October 18, chapters of the Campaign in Washington, D.C., organized a 60-strong rally on the steps of the Supreme Court building to call for an end to juvenile executions. The justices may have chosen to ignore us, but we won’t stop organizing. Stop executing our youth!