Past Time To Halt Juvenile Executions

Human rights groups breathed a sigh of relief for the week's reprieve the Georgia parole board gave to Alexander Williams IV. Williams, convicted of rape and murder in 1986, was scheduled to die on February 20. The case drew national and international outrage because Williams was diagnosed as mentally ill. But the Williams case also tossed an ugly glare on America's shameful treatment of juveniles convicted of capital crimes. Williams was seventeen when he was sentenced to death.

While fifteen of the thirty-eight death penalty states ban the execution of minors, and others impose an age minimum of eighteen for the death penalty, several others have no age minimum. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C. criminal justice reform group, eighteen men have been executed since 1976 for crimes they committed when younger than 18. Nearly one hundred prisoners convicted of capital crimes as juveniles currently languish on America's death rows.

More than half of them are young blacks or Latinos. Most were convicted of killing whites. The disgraceful fact is that the United States now stands virtually alone in the world in killing juvenile offenders. Congo and Iran, among the most abominable human rights violators in the world, are the only other countries known to have executed juveniles in the past three years.

Even China, which executes more persons than any other country, has banned juvenile executions. The American Bar Association, the United Nations, medical associations, human rights groups, and a national commission studying the death penalty that included former FBI director William Sessions and Oklahoma City bombing prosecutor, Beth Wilkinson, have called for the U.S. to ban executions of those sentenced to death as juveniles.

Many child development experts agree that children don't have the same maturity, judgment, or emotional development as adults. Amnesty International, which calls for the outright ban on all executions of those convicted of crimes as juveniles, found that many child offenders sentenced to death have suffered severe physical or sexual abuse, were alcohol or drug impaired, or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were below average intelligence. Williams is a near textbook example of a juvenile offender who suffered from mental disorders and childhood abuse.

Five of the jurors that sentenced him to death said that they would not have sentenced him to death if they had known of his brutal childhood treatment.

But they didn't know about that history because his defense attorney didn't tell them. And this points to yet another of the reasons that the death penalty is riddled with iniquities for many poor and minority defendants, whether juvenile or adult. In far too many cases, they received slipshod defenses by grossly indifferent or incompetent attorneys. The week before Williams' execution, the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal reform group, released a second study that found that appeal courts tossed nearly 70 percent of death penalty cases because of serious errors. The report fingered "egregiously incompetent" attorneys as a prime reason for the death penalty reversals.

A glimmer of hope that legal attitudes toward juvenile executions are changing was the decision by Supreme Court judges, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul Stevens to stay the execution of Texas inmate Napoleon Beazley last August. This sent a strong message that some jurists are squeamish about killing juvenile offenders. This almost certainly played a big role in getting the Texas appeals court, which had been even more loathe than the high court to reverse death penalty convictions, to grant Beazley an indefinite stay.

Still, the Beazley and Williams cases may be a blip on the execution scorecard, and may not represent the great sea change in legal and public opinion that death penalty opponents hope mass attention to juvenile executions will bring. Prosecutors and courts in the states that execute those sentenced to death as juveniles have repeatedly rejected challenges that killing juvenile offenders is a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A federal appeals court in Georgia refused last ditch appeals to spare Williams. Also, President Bush and Attorney-General John Ashcroft have voiced no doubts about the injustice of executing juveniles sentenced to death. This is yet another bad sign that many federal officials still see nothing wrong in condemning juveniles to death, and will say and do nothing to reverse the policy.

Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth, most experts insist that children are not natural-born killers. If given proper treatment, counseling, skills training, and education most can be turned into productive adults. Yet if past practice and current public sentiment, which is still strongly pro-capital punishment, is any indication, legal or public shame over killing those sentenced to death as juveniles won't be enough to save men such as Williams from death.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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