International shame

July 27, 2004

THE SUPREME COURT has the chance this fall to step in and affirm that teenage criminals ought not be sentenced to death, because they are not old enough to be fully responsible for their judgment and their actions.

The juvenile death penalty, in place in 19 states and actively used in seven, qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, according to a Missouri appellate court ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court will review next session. And it doesn't deter crime or reflect the American ideal of treating children differently from adults.

With this case, the court could put a stop to the practice, and it should. Executing people for crimes they committed as 16- and 17-year-olds violates widely accepted human rights norms, as the 25-nation European Union and 23 other nations put it in a brief filed in support of the Missouri case the court will consider next session. Such policies isolate the United States from its allies and diminish the power of its diplomats to speak out convincingly on the whole array of human rights issues.

Child executions violate "minimum standards of decency now adopted by nearly every other nation in the world, including even autocratic regimes with poor human rights records," reads a brief signed by retired U.S. diplomats, including former Ambassadors Stuart E. Eizenstat, Thomas R. Pickering and Felix G. Rohatyn. The only other countries that killed convicts of mortal crimes committed in their youth in the past four years were China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan, the diplomats say - not America's usual crowd. Maryland does not allow such executions; Virginia does.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for offenders younger than 16, but the next year upheld it for those 16 and older, reflecting the fears that a generation of "superpredators" was coming. It never did. And in 2002, the court banned executing mentally retarded convicts, saying a "national consensus" considered such executions wrong.

Research continues to confirm that the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and moral reasoning do not mature fully until age 18 (and sometimes into the mid-20s), the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and hundreds of other medical groups and individuals repeated in a letter in support of abolition.

That matches the common wisdom hard-earned by parents, teachers and others in day-to-day contact with teenagers.

In a nation where 16- and 17-year-olds aren't considered legally mature enough to vote or buy beer, it strains credulity to argue that they should have complete control over themselves in just this one, most extreme, part of the law.

Compassion, coupled with scientific fact, argues for life.

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