Opinion

Ashcroft’s Death Wish

It is hard to imagine a more worthy candidate for the juvenile death penalty than 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. He stands accused in the killings of 14 people and the wounding of seven others in a five-month cross-country orgy of felonious crime. That certainly is the opinion of the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft. Everything about this illegal immigrant from Jamaica is unappealing, from the company he kept to his alleged cowardly sniper assaults on his victims (including a 13-year-old boy). Surely here is a juvenile who, if convicted, should never be able to walk the streets again.

If executed, Malvo would be enrolled in a tiny fraternity of 21 juvenile offenders executed in the United States since the death penalty was restored in 1976. Another 81 are on death row awaiting execution, including 17 who were 16 when they murdered their victims.

In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Oklahoma that executing an under-16-year-old is unconstitutional. Last August three Supreme Court justices signaled that the era of legally killing kids might be coming to an end, perhaps before Malvo’s earliest possible rendezvous with the death chamber. One of the three justices, John Paul Stevens, wrote: “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.”

That same month, convicted murderer T.J. Jones – who had been diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder and had an IQ of 78 and the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old – was executed in Texas. Then in October, the Supreme Court declined, by a 5-4 vote, to hear the appeal of another juvenile death penalty case from Texas.

Now anti-juvenile death penalty crusaders have found a most improbable and ironic ally in Ashcroft. As a senator he introduced the harshest juvenile crime bill in Congress’ modern history, the Violent and Hard-Core Juvenile Offender Reform Act of 1995, causing even his GOP allies to blanch at its mean-spirited and ugly portrayal of young people.

So it is no surprise that Ashcroft’s every move since Malvo and his 41-year-old accomplice were captured has had only one objective: Kill this kid. Malvo’s mental state is unknown. His grasp of his legal rights, says his lawyer, is minuscule. Although Malvo was arrested in Maryland – one of 28 states that don’t allow the execution of juvenile offenders – Ashcroft transferred him to Virginia, solely so that the teenager could be put to death (just as have three other Virginia juveniles have been since 1976).
Upon arrival in Virginia, Malvo was interrogated for seven hours while his court-appointed guardian and lawyer were barred from speaking with him. Absent a plea bargain, Malvo’s trial (probably on Court TV), conviction and appeals would probably cost taxpayers as much as imposing a life sentence without parole.

But a trial would allow the American public to come face to face with its peculiar penchant for killing kids. Only two thugocracies – Iran and the Congo – join the 22 U.S. states that allow this practice. Certainly, media hound Ashcroft can be counted on to add his vituperative voice to the coverage at every opportunity.

It’s an even bet as to whether Malvo will be executed or spend a long, painful life in prison. It is a better bet that, unwittingly aided by the spectacle of this U.S attorney general’s effort to execute Malvo, this may well prove a Pyrrhic
victory for the dwindling ranks of juvenile death penalty supporters.

Youth Today’s ‘Bad Attitude’

Journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken observed almost a century ago that “freedom of press is limited to those who own one.” Until Youth Today’s first edition appeared in 1992, no independent entity reporting on the entire youth service field “owned one.” The nonprofit Youth Today is governed by a 10-member board, each with a distinguished background in youth-related matters and/or journalism.

The board leaves editorial judgments to the newspaper’s staff. In our reporting, editorials and commentary, we strive for fair but decidedly independent reporting. That can be problematic.

Over half of Youth Today’s budget comes from foundations, which, for their trouble, get complaint letters from aggrieved parties about Youth Today’s bad attitude. The biggest complainers are other foundations and national groups that object to the kind of business reporting common in virtually every other sector of American life. Acceptance of independent reporting extends even to the federal government, a far more frequent subject of skeptical Youth Today reporting than philanthropy.

We take seriously our good fortune to “own,” or at least borrow, a printing press on behalf of young people and those who serve them, with a full understanding of our ethical obligations. But that does not include any interest in pleasing, flattering or ingratiating ourselves with the field’s elite, who are already well-equipped to speak for themselves.

Youth workers need and deserve an independent, pro-youth development newspaper. Under the current management until our funders (subscribers, advertisers, and foundations) pull the plug, that’s exactly what our readers can expect. As Youth Today founding editor Bill Howard was fond of saying, “If you want to be popular, don’t be a journalist.”

– Bill Treanor

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