High court rejects case on execution of juveniles

Ky. killer's appeal shows justices deeply divided over constitutional issue

October 22, 2002|By Jan Crawford Greenburg | Jan Crawford Greenburg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - With dissenting justices calling for "an end to this shameful practice," a deeply divided Supreme Court refused yesterday to decide whether executing juvenile killers violates the Constitution.

In a one-sentence order, the court turned away arguments by Kentucky inmate Kevin Nigel Stanford that it would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, to execute him for a murder he committed at 17.

But the issue revealed deep divisions on the court, as four justices, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, said Stanford and others younger than 18 when they kill should not be put to death.

"The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," wrote Stevens.

He was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

The court had rejected Stanford's arguments 13 years ago, when it first took up his case and narrowly ruled there was no national consensus against executing juveniles who murder at 16 and 17.

In asking the court to rethink that decision, Stanford argued that society's views on the matter had changed.

Yesterday's announcement came just four months after the court ruled unconstitutional the execution of mentally retarded killers - a decision that gave death penalty opponents hope that the court was narrowing the application of capital punishment after reports indicating flaws and bias in the system.

As Illinois officials engage in controversial clemency proceedings for death row inmates, Congress and many other states, including Maryland, are re-examining how the death penalty is carried out.

Opponents of capital punishment have pushed for a nationwide moratorium on executions and have urged the court to re-examine the application and mechanics of the death penalty in several cases.

In a separate case yesterday, the court also refused to consider whether a person could be on death row for so long that executing him could constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Convicted killer Charles Kenneth Foster argued that executing him after 27 years on Florida's death row would violate the Eighth Amendment.

That case, too, reflected discord on the court over the issue of the death penalty. Breyer dissented from that decision not to get involved, maintaining that "it is fairly asked" whether executing a prisoner who had spent so long on death row was unconstitutional.

But Justice Clarence Thomas said the court was right not to get involved.

"Petitioner could long ago have ended his `anxieties and uncertainties' by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution," Thomas wrote.

Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said yesterday that she believed the court would eventually return to the issue of executing juveniles and rule the practice unconstitutional, just as it did for mentally retarded killers.

"We're going to continue to see this debate go forward, as it has in the states," she said. "We're going to continue to see the court grappling with the basic fairness of the death penalty. The death penalty is very much under the microscope, as it should be."

In its landmark ruling in June on executing mentally retarded killers, the justices concluded that the nation had reached a consensus that such executions violated standards of decency.

It reversed a 13-year-old decision that said the Constitution did not ban the practice.

That decision, written by Stevens, emphasized a national consensus among the American public, legislators, scholars and judges that executing a mentally retarded criminal is cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In dissent yesterday, Stevens said the reasons for abolishing the death penalty for mentally retarded killers "apply with equal or greater force to the execution of juvenile offenders."

He said the fact that only 28 states prohibit executing juvenile killers - compared with the 30 states that prohibited executing mentally retarded offenders - did not justify treating the two differently.

Stanford, who is 39, was convicted in 1982 for raping and killing a gas station clerk in Kentucky.

Jan Crawford Greenburg writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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