Executioners Kick Off 2000 with Juvenile Offenders

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More juvenile offenders were executed in Virginia and Texas last month than have ever been executed in a single month in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Douglas Christopher Thomas was executed on Jan. 10 in Virginia, followed by Steve Roach three days later, also in Virginia. The execution of Glen Charles McGinnis in Texas on Jan. 25 set the macabre record. All were 17 when they committed murder and in their 20s when executed.

Thomas' and McGinnis' lawyers filed appeals on the basis of international law. The United States has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits the execution of anyone for crimes they committed when they were under 18. But the U.S. made an exception to the article containing that prohibition. The European Union submitted a clemency plea to Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore in the Thomas case.

According to Amnesty International, six countries besides the United States are known to have executed juvenile offenders during the 1990s. Two of them (Yemen and China) have since outlawed the practice. The U.S. executed more juvenile offenders during the '90s than did all other countries combined. America and Somalia remain the only countries that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that, "Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age."

Today, there are approximately 70 people on death row for murders committed as juveniles, according to Steve Drizen of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.

Victor Streib, dean and professor of law at the Claude W. Pettit College of Law, Ohio Northern University and an expert on the juvenile death penalty, sees last month's unprecedented slew of executions as a fluke, not indicative of any longer-term change. Nevertheless, he describes the executions as an international embarrassment for the United States.

"It's not an area where the U.S. wants to be the first or alone," he said. He imagines that "sooner or later the United States will have to [stop defying] the whole world's notion of what is proper behavior."

David Doi, executive director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, agrees that international pressure might eventually have an effect. "Both the people of the world and Americans have to be outraged," and policymakers need to "begin to realize these are children we are talking about and they can be rehabilitated."

The pro-death penalty National Center for Policy Analysis cites a 1995 Heritage Foundation report finding that "teenagers commit the largest portion of all violent crime in America." However, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), far fewer murders were committed in fiscal year 1998 by those under 21 than by those in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. What's more, murder rates are far higher among 18- and 19-year-olds than among younger teens - so the practice of using statistics on all teens to defend harsher punishment for juveniles younger than 18 can be misleading.

Even some non-death penalty states are in conflict with the U.N. Convention. One is Michigan, which passed a law in 1997 that allows adult prosecution of juveniles when charged with a serious felony, meaning they can get life in prison without the possibility of release. In fact, on the day Roach was executed, 13-year-old convicted killer Nathaniel Abraham faced that possibility. In a controversial ruling, the judge sentenced him to juvenile prison until he's 21.

- Amy Bracken