Coalition opposes execution of teens

Carter, Koop, Gorbachev among those urging court to spare 16-, 17-year-olds

July 20, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A broad coalition of Nobel Peace Prize winners and former U.S. diplomats, allied countries and some of the nation's most influential medical and religious groups pushed the Supreme Court yesterday to abolish the death penalty for teenage killers, pointing to international law and new research on brain development.

The court is scheduled to reconsider this fall the question of whether executing killers who committed their crimes at age 16 or 17 is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The case, involving a Missouri man who robbed and killed a woman when he was 17, is expected to be among the most closely watched of the term.

The United States is one of only a few countries that allow executions of young offenders.

"By continuing to execute child offenders in violation of international norms, the United States is not just leaving itself open to charges of hypocrisy, but also is endangering the rights of many around the world," said one friend-of-the-court filing signed by 17 Nobel laureates, including former President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former South African President F.W. de Klerk.

"Countries whose human rights records are criticized by the United States have no incentive to improve their records when the United States fails to meet the most fundamental, base-line standards," they said.

Other filings arguing against the death penalty for teenage offenders came from former U.S. diplomats and surgeons general, including C. Everett Koop, the American Medical Association, 48 countries - from the European Union and other allied nations - including Mexico, which noted that three Mexican nationals are on death rows in the United States for killings committed before they were age 18.

At the end of last month, there were 72 death row inmates in the country convicted of killings at age 16 or 17, according to statistics compiled by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. Texas has the most, at 28.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the Missouri case, Roper vs. Simmons, in October. Its decision would have broad implications - perhaps most notably for Lee Boyd Malvo, who was convicted of carrying out the Washington-area sniper attacks that claimed 10 lives when he was 17.

A Virginia jury last year spared Malvo a death sentence, citing his age as one factor. But he could face other death penalty trials, depending on the Supreme Court's decision.

Victor L. Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who has studied juvenile death sentences over the past two decades, said yesterday's filings were significant in part because one issue before the justices will be whether public sentiment surrounding capital punishment for young offenders has shifted since the court last weighed in on the matter.

In 1989, the court ruled in a case from Kentucky that states could execute killers who were 16 or older at the time they committed their crimes.

"It's a much broader, deeper set of briefs than are filed in most cases," Streib said yesterday. "The reason it's important in this case is because the court in deciding these kinds of cases looks at the evolving standard of decency."

A filing from the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and other leading medical organizations said that new research shows that areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and moral reasoning do not fully mature until age 18 or beyond.

"The adolescent's mind works differently from ours. Parents know it. This court has said it. Legislatures have presumed it for decades or more. And now, new scientific evidence sheds light on the differences," the medical groups said.

"Older adolescents are not simply miniature adults, with less experience or wisdom," the groups said. "They are also not as equipped as adults to engage in moral reasoning and adjust their conduct accordingly."

The Justice for All Alliance, which supports capital punishment, argued that teenage offenders are capable of understanding right from wrong. In the Missouri case, government lawyers have noted that convicted killer Christopher Simmons planned his attack with two teenage friends after assuring them that they would not get in trouble because they were juveniles.

Attorneys for Alabama, Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia told the Supreme Court that decisions about juvenile executions should be left to states to decide, saying that a "bright-line rule categorically exempting 16- and 17-year-olds from the death penalty - no matter how elaborate the plot, how sinister the killing, or how sophisticated the cover-up - would be arbitrary at best and downright perverse at worst."

The death penalty has put the United States at odds in some instances with many allied countries that do not support capital punishment.

"The importance of international law to the issue before this court is clear," the Nobel prize winners said. "The views of the world community play a significant role in the redressing of human rights abuses. If the world had not spoken out against apartheid, it might still be in place in South Africa."

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