Minors still executed
Our evolving standards of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment have not come far enough. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to continue allowing juvenile offenders to be executed. That means we will remain in the company of Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the only nations that officially impose the death penalty on minors.
This decision comes as a serious disappointment since there was real reason to hope the court would soon alter its position. Resistance is growing in the states to imposing the death penalty on those who committed their crimes when youth diminished their mental capacity.
Last term, when the justices banned executions for the mentally retarded in a 6-to-3 decision, they acknowledged the role states play in establishing the base-line for what is considered tolerable in the criminal justice system. The majority noted with interest that 18 states and the federal government had exempted the retarded from the death penalty, demonstrating a national consensus against executing people who have the mind of a child. It is a short step from that analysis to declaring that children themselves should not be subject to capital sentencing, particularly since 40 percent of the states with the death penalty exempt those under 18.
But that moral position is not likely to be adopted any time soon. In a 5-to-4 split, the court declined to take up the habeas corpus petition of Kevin Nigel Stanford who had been convicted of robbing, sodomizing and killing a woman in Kentucky 20 years ago. Stanford was 17 at the time of the crime and the court refused to consider whether executing him would violate the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Dissenting were the court's more liberal justices: John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who pointed out that since 1989, the last time the court affirmed the execution of 16- and 17-year-old juveniles, five states had raised the minimum age for execution to 18 and none had lowered it. Justice Stevens wrote for the dissenters that executing juvenile offenders is "a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."
The court's action may have significantly more impact on Florida if Amendment 1 is approved in November. The amendment directs the Florida Supreme Court to interpret the state prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment in accord with the U.S. Supreme Court's view of the Eighth Amendment. Previously, the Florida court had ruled that executing 16-year-old offenders is "unusual" and therefore unlawful. If Amendment 1 passes, this ruling may be invalidated. The age cut off in current law established by the U.S. Supreme Court, is 15.
Our law recognizes a sharp divide between minors and adults. Minors are told they can't vote or consent to contracts, among other privileges, because they are not considered mature enough to make responsible judgments. Yet the state holds them fully culpable, and seeks to impose the ultimate penalty, for the serious crimes they commit. There is a disconnect here that is fundamentally unfair and unseemly for a civilized society.
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