Death Penalty Foes See Hope at Supreme Court

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Juvenile death penalty opponents are heartened by recent signals that several U.S. Supreme Court justices are ready to rethink the executions.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in August that the high court should consider a new juvenile death penalty case, after the court rejected an appeal to stay the execution of a Texas man who was sentenced to death for crimes he committed at age 17. Toronto M. Patterson, 24, was executed on Aug. 28, the day his appeal was rejected.

Most Supreme Court decisions rejecting death sentence appeals are usually released without comment. In the Patterson case, Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer issued statements explaining their dissent from the majority’s choice to reject the appeal.

“Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate for the court to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity,” Stevens wrote.

The statements came two months after the court ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded is unconstitutional (Atkins v. Virginia), a ruling that many juvenile death penalty opponents saw as a victory for their cause. They argue that juveniles, like the mentally retarded, may have impaired judgment and problems controlling their behavior.

“The moral force and legal justification for the death penalty – deterrence and retribution – simply do not apply in the case of juvenile offenders,” American Bar Association President Alfred P. Carlton Jr. told Youth Today in August through a prepared statement. “Other teenagers, acting impulsively, typically lacking judgment and self- control, will not be deterred when we execute their contemporaries.”

Death penalty supporters argue that the age of a perpetrator should not be the only consideration when sentencing, because age is not synonymous with maturity. A 16-year-old boy, they say, may be as cold, calculating and evil as a 35-year-old man or woman.

“If a 35-year-old man deserves death, so would the 16-year-old.” said Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “This reminds us that these age definitions are arbitrary.”

The court has not considered the juvenile death penalty since 1989, when it ruled in Stanford v. Kentucky that execution for crimes committed by juveniles did not violate constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Public opinion could force the court to change its position, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

“What’s ‘cruel and unusual’ is not set in stone in the 18th century. It evolves. But there has to be some evidence of that,” Dieter said. “There will probably need to be some momentum among states to raise the age on their own. That would indicate an evolved standard of decency.”

Twenty-two states have a juvenile death penalty. Fifteen have juveniles on death row, but only seven have actually executed juveniles since 1976: Texas (13), Virginia (three), and Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina (one each). One of the convicts was 16 when the crime was committed, and the rest were 17.

To make the court’s docket, at least four of the nine justices must agree that a case should be heard. The court sets its schedule each September.

Contact: U.S. Supreme Court,; American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center,; Death Penalty Information Center,