When the 20th century began every nation on earth – save Costa Rica and Venezuela – allowed the execution of convicted murderers, including those under 18. By century’s end the list of nations judicially imposing and carrying out the death penalty on juvenile offenders had dwindled to just four authoritarian regimes – Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia – plus 23 of these very United States.
Since October 1997 American child executioners have been plying their trade alone, closing out the century with four more executions. Three of the four convicted murderers (two in Texas, one in Virginia) were 17 at the time of their heinous crimes, while Oklahoman Sean Sellers was 16.
In this new century not only does America hold the record for executing juvenile offenders, we are the only country still engaged in this degrading practice, which is an affront to human dignity and debases the majesty of this free nation in whose name the executions are carried out.
One need not have the slightest sympathy for these dreadful killers, deserving as they are of a vast expanse of time behind bars, to support the end of capital punishment for those who commit these crimes as children.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1988 case of Thompson v. Oklahoma that executions of offenders under 16 was unconstitutional. But a year later in Stanford v. Kentucky, the court upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds as consistent with U.S. “standards of decency.” And in virtually its final action of the century (which opened with the Court ignoring Southern lynchings) the Supreme Court agreed with the position of Attorney General Reno and President Clinton, in the case of Domingues v. Nevada, not to examine if the U.S. practice of killing kids who kill violates international law.
That decision helped make January a banner month for supporters of capital punishment. Three juvenile killers (two in Virginia and one in Texas) have been put to death, equaling a monthly toll not seen since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 – assuring that January 2000 will be remembered as a month that will live in infancy.
The continuation of this practice is certainly not justified by its supposed deterrent value. To the contrary, the juvenile death penalty’s existence can just as plausibly be seen as contributing to a mental frame of mind that leads to mass carnage followed by suicide. Such was the case at Columbine High School, for example.
How ironic that January also brought U.S. acquiescence to an international accord setting 18 as the minimum age for sending soldiers into combat. This revision of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will raise the standard from age 15 to 18 and will affect less than 2,500 American enlistees each year. President Clinton hailed the Geneva agreement as “an important advance for human rights.”
But it is on the political front that capital punishment for juveniles as well as adults has proven most corrosive to civic life and virtue. One growing feature of state and federal campaigns for public office is the I’ll-kill-um’-faster-than-my-honorable-opponent debate.
Take the case of Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), one of the most mean-spirited politicians to sit in Congress since Jim Crow crumbled in the 1960s. After six years in the Senate his re-election campaign is basically one big plank aimed at decapitating his opponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan. The offense that makes Carnahan unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate, says Ashcroft: sparing the life of a triple murderer at the request of a visiting Pope John Paul II.
In October 1992 then Gov. Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to return to Arkansas in order to get full credit for executing a severely brain damaged convict. That move, which helped Clinton defeat a sitting president, was not lost on Texas Gov. George Bush. Despite protests from such groups as the National Mental Health Association, Texas just executed a 42-year-old diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. “Discipline and love go hand in hand” says Gov. Bush.
With Texas housing one-third of the nation’s approximately 70 convicted juvenile killers on death row, expect the run up to the November elections to be electrifying indeed.
Queried Christian Coalition chairman and former GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson at a panel last year on the death penalty, “What kind of animal vengeance is it in a society where people take such delight in this?”