Newspapers, Opinion Leaders Call for End to Juvenile Death Penalty
As the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Roper v. Simmons on October 13, newspapers throughout the country featured editorials and opinion pieces calling on the U.S. to abandon the practice of executing juvenile offenders:
The New York Times
When the Supreme Court considers an Eighth Amendment challenge, it looks to "evolving standards of decency" - and there has been a steady movement nationally away from the juvenile death penalty. In the 15 years since the Supreme Court last considered this question, a significant number of states, including Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and New York have prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders. In 30 states and the District of Columbia, there now is either no death penalty, or the death penalty applies only to people who were 18 or older at the time of their crimes. Even in those states where juvenile offenders can be executed, it is extremely rare. Only three states have done so in the past decade.
When it considers this case, the court should give weight to the growing scientific literature that says young people's brains are still developing in important ways before the age of 18, and to the nearly unanimous international opinion on this issue.
On the same day in 1989 that the court upheld the death penalty for juvenile offenders, it ruled that the mentally retarded could be executed. But in 2002, the court reversed itself, concluding that national standards of decency had evolved away from permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. The court should reach the same conclusion now for juvenile offenders.
(New York Times Editorial, October 13, 2004).
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a case that could lead to a legal prohibition on the execution of anyone under 18 years old.
The high court in 1989 established the criteria for deciding whether such executions are permissible. At that time, it found there was no national consensus that the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded violated the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
. . .
In 2002, applying that same standard of national consensus and "evolving standards of decency," and looking in particular at what state legislatures were doing about the issue, the court reversed itself and declared that executions of those with mental retardation were unconstitutional.
It's difficult to see how the court could now reach a different conclusion in regard to juveniles. The case against executing juveniles is as strong as that against executing those who are mentally retarded.
. . .
The court in 1988 ruled it was impermissible to execute children under age 16. The question at hand is whether, in effect, to extend such protection to 16- and 17-year-olds.
In seeking evidence of a national consensus, the court is likely to consider trends in jury sentences in capital cases, public opinion polls, positions taken by professional and religious organizations and even international practice. The direction in all of those realms supports the argument that these executions should be eliminated.
Admittedly, it seems to be an odd way to determine constitutionality. Public consensus is usually the province of legislatures.
In this case, though, Congress and the states through a constitutional amendment handed the courts the power to judge what is cruel and unusual in criminal law. There was a time in this nation's history when it was considered appropriate to execute someone for stealing a neighbor's chicken. Things have evolved.
And now it's time for them to evolve again.
(Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2004).
The Washington Post
The Supreme Court has an opportunity this term to correct one of the uglier mistakes of its recent history: its 1989 decision upholding the death penalty for juveniles. Yesterday the court held oral arguments in a case that asks whether it will continue to stand behind that ruling. It shouldn't. ... Even for those who favor the death penalty, killing juvenile offenders should be beyond the constitutional pale.
. . .
Of the 22 juvenile convicts executed since the death penalty's reinstatement, almost 60 percent were put to death in Texas. Only seven states have executed juvenile offenders, and in the past 10 years, only three states -- Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia -- have done so. ... Juries are increasingly reluctant to impose the death penalty on those who were children when they committed their crimes. And while overseas practice shouldn't bind American constitutional law, it is worth noting the company this country has to keep in subjecting juveniles to capital punishment: China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The practice simply no longer exists among democratic nations.
Abolishing the juvenile death penalty will not dramatically alter the debate over capital punishment in this country. It will, however, bring to bear against a few outlying states the powerful national consensus that children -- even when they do terrible things -- are different from adults. Insulating them from the ultimate punishment should not be a tough call.
(The Washington Post, October 14, 2004).
USA Today (Opinion Piece by former President Jimmy Carter)
I am hopeful our top court will take this opportunity to acknowledge that evolving standards of decency at home and abroad as well as basic principles of American justice Ñ require the rejection of executing children once and for all.
Opposition to juvenile capital punishment has gained significant momentum in the past few years in the United States.
. . .
The elimination of the juvenile death penalty would be a significant step in bringing the U.S. in line with the moral consensus of the global community. The Founders of our great nation celebrated the need for Òa decent Respect to the Opinions of MankindÓ in our Declaration of Independence. Since the end of World War II, our country has taken the lead in speaking out against human-rights violations elsewhere in the world and has enjoyed respect in world affairs.
The American system of constitutional democracy and guaranteed freedoms has stood as an exemplar in the eyes of people and nations emerging from totalitarian and repressive regimes. The continued policy of executing juveniles detracts profoundly from our credibility as a champion of human rights and, therefore, erodes our ability to influence the behavior of other nations and world leaders.
While almost universal condemnation of the juvenile death penalty has become as well recognized as the global prohibitions against slavery, torture and genocide, in America we have executed more juveniles in the past 15 years than all other countries combined.
Nobel Peace Prize winners, including former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Tibetan Dalai Lama all have encouraged the court to reject juvenile capital punishment. I fervently hope the jurists will agree with these esteemed peacemakers.
Our nation is now acknowledging what the rest of the world already knows: Executing juvenile offenders is cruel and inhumane.
(USA Today, October 13, 2004).
From the Austin American-Statesman
The case of Napoleon Beazley, a juvenile offender in Texas who was scheduled to be executed on August 15 before receiving a stay, prompted the following Austin American-Statesman editorial:
With a horrified world watching, Texas plans to execute Napoleon Beazley next week. If Beazley is killed, it will be to the detriment of justice. Gov. Rick Perry, his Board of Pardons and Paroles and the courts should block this execution and seek a lesser penalty for several reasons. One is that Beazley was a minor when the murder for which he was sentenced was committed. Another is evidence suggesting that racial prejudice, procedural unfairness and inaccurate testimony about the youth's danger to society led to the death sentence.
(Austin American-Statesman, editorial, 8/8/01)