Should a teenage killer have to pay with his life?

Justice: A 1981 case of rape and murder still stirs a deeply emotional debate on execution of juveniles.

October 13, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EDDYVILLE, Ky. - Kevin Stanford was 17 when he was arrested for the rape and murder of a Louisville gas station attendant. He was 18 when a jury sent him here to Kentucky's death row. And he was 25 when the U.S. Supreme Court looked at his case and ruled that imposing the death penalty on juveniles was not cruel and unusual punishment.

As the court revisits that question today, some 15 years later, its decision in Stanford's case still stands. But Stanford, now 41 and with gray in his beard, no longer wears the bright-red jumpsuit that for two decades marked him as an inmate on death row.

Gov. Paul E. Patton, a pro-capital punishment politician who oversaw two executions while in office, commuted Stanford's sentence to life without parole last December on his final day as Kentucky's chief executive - a decision he says was based solely on Stanford's age at the time of the crime.

"Obviously, children can be as vicious as anyone on Earth and, obviously, Kevin Stanford's case was a vicious, vicious crime," Patton said in a recent interview. "But the issue to me was that a person that age cannot be held responsible to the point where they should have to pay with their life."

Patton's decision could have far-reaching implications. A central issue before the Supreme Court now is whether public sentiment has shifted since its 1989 ruling in the Stanford case allowed states to execute killers who were 16 or older when they committed their crimes.

The high court will hear arguments in the case of a Missouri man, Christopher Simmons, who was sentenced to death for robbing and killing a woman when he was 17. Simmons confessed to the killing, which he planned with two teenage friends after assuring them that "their status as juveniles would allow them to get away with it," court records show.

`The worst thing'

In Kentucky, Patton's decision renewed debate over the issue, stirring bitter feelings and prompting Stanford to reflect on his status, the first time he has spoken publicly since his sentence was commuted.

At the state prison in western Kentucky where he has spent more than half his life - the past nine months among the general population - Stanford complains that attention in his case was too narrowly focused on that single question, detracting from issues of poor lawyering or mitigating circumstances that might have allowed him to one day leave prison.

"I am frustrated, and this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life, this sentence of life without [parole]," Stanford said. "On death row, ... that had a finality to it, it had some kind of closure. I knew it was going to end someday, one way or another."

At her home in Louisville, Mona Mills grows angry recounting her unsuccessful efforts to stop the governor from granting clemency to the man who killed her elder sister, Baerbel Poore.

"Of course, I knew what [Patton] was going to do, but you hold onto hope until that very last moment," Mills said. "This happened in 1981. All the years that have went by - my mother has passed away, my father has passed away, and that was my promise to my father, that I would see this through.

"A lot of people, maybe they look at me like I'm bloodthirsty or something," Mills said. "It's not revenge. I'm following what the jury chose. I want to see the law upheld, and I did want my family to be able to go on with their lives."

A heinous crime

Poore, then 20 years old, was working the late shift at a Checker Oil Station near her family's home in Louisville on Jan. 7, 1981 - a job she took to help support her infant daughter. Stanford, according to court papers, spent the day drinking Old Forester whiskey and smoking marijuana before setting out with friends to make some quick money.

Stanford was 17 years and 4 months old when he entered the Checker station with David Buchanan, 16, and Troy Johnson, 17, who brought along his brother's gun. According to court records, Stanford rummaged for cash while Buchanan took Poore into the bathroom and sexually assaulted her, an attack Stanford later joined.

They then drove Poore to a secluded area, where she was shot once in the face and once in the back of the head. Afterward, they returned to the station and took two gallons of gas, $140 and two large boxes of cigarettes.

A jury said Stanford was the gunman - something Stanford denies but Poore's family has never doubted - and sentenced him to death. Buchanan received a life sentence with the possibility of parole and is still in prison. Johnson cooperated with prosecutors and got nine months in a juvenile facility.

Stanford said he thought his appeals would offer a chance to air questions about his guilt or the failure of his original attorneys to present evidence about childhood neglect and sexual abuse that might have persuaded jurors to reject a death sentence. Instead, he found himself unwittingly at the center of the international debate about the propriety of executing juvenile killers.

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