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Death penalty

18 is threshold for death penalty

The Supreme Court split 5-4 in a case that takes three inmates off death row in Florida.

Published March 2, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday outlawed the executions of death row inmates who committed their crimes when they were juveniles.

The ruling will remove 72 inmates from death rows nationwide, including three in Florida, among them a Pasco County man who brutally murdered an elderly woman in 1995.

The decision also halts Virginia prosecutors' efforts to send teen sniper Lee Boyd Malvo to death.

The high court split 5-4 in ruling that executing juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. "It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."

The decision stemmed from the appeal of Christopher Simmons, who kidnapped a neighbor, hogtied her and threw her off a bridge in Missouri in 1993. Simmons had bragged that he could get away with the crime because of his age.

Florida last executed a juvenile offender in 1954, when Abraham Beard was put to death in the electric chair. Beard was convicted of raping a Tallahassee woman in 1952 when he was 17 years old.

Death penalty opponents in Florida rejoiced in the high court's decision, saying the United States has been one of the last nations in the world to still execute juvenile offenders.

"Now our state will bring its law into line with international law," said Abe Bonowitz, head of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "We no longer have Iran as a partner in the juvenile death penalty."

But some victim advocacy groups wondered what's so magical about a person's 18th birthday to make them eligible for a death sentence while killers just months younger are not.

"The idea that a male who is 17 years and 364 days old doesn't know better than a male who is 18 years old is absurd," said Dan Cutrer, a Texas lawyer who filed a brief with the high court on behalf of the victims rights group Justice For All. "Taking a human life is a bit more than voting or consuming alcohol or going to X-rated movies."

Tuesday's ruling is the latest in several that has narrowed the field of people who can be executed. In 2002, the high court ruled that executing mentally retarded criminals also violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"Those are big changes in the law," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "It shows the evolving standards of decency in this country."

Death penalty opponents say recent scientific studies have found that 16- and 17-year-olds don't understand the consequences of their actions as clearly as adults.

"They don't have the same sense of consequence," said Stephen Harper, a Miami-Dade public defender who has fought juvenile executions for five years. "They are less culpable than we ever knew and should not be subject to the ultimate punishment."

The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association supported the ruling, as did the American Bar Association, which adopted a stance against juvenile executions in 1983.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia chastised his colleagues for taking power from the states. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also wrote a dissenting opinion.

"The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards," Scalia wrote. "By what conceivable warrant can nine lawyers presume to be the authoritative conscience of the nation?"

He added: "Today's opinion provides a perfect example of why judges are ill equipped to make the type of legislative judgments the court insists on making here."

Florida was one of 19 states that allowed the execution of juvenile offenders. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that the state Constitution banned execution of children 16 or younger, but the constitutional provision was changed in 2002.

For the last several years, state Sen. Victor Crist has sponsored a bill to ban juvenile executions, but the legislation never passed.

Crist, R-Tampa, said he was pleased by the result of the ruling but thought that the action should have been taken by lawmakers, not judges.

"I'm disappointed that the court had to be the one to act on this," Crist said. "To me, this is overstepping their authority."

In Florida, 26 juvenile killers were sentenced to death row since 1973, though 23 of those death sentences were reversed, according to a study by juvenile death penalty expert Victor L. Streib.

Nationwide, Streib's study found that of the 228 juvenile death sentences imposed since 1973, 134 were reversed or commuted. Twenty-two juvenile offenders were put to death in that time.

Those deaths make up 2.3 percent of the nearly 1,000 executions nationwide in that time.

Oklahoma was the last to execute a juvenile offender, in 2003.

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said he cannot remember his office ever seeking a death sentence for a juvenile offender.

In the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, chief assistant state attorney Bruce Bartlett said there only have been a handful. "It's used sparingly in the 6th Circuit on juveniles. Age is a considerable mitigator."

However, Bartlett's office prosecuted Nathan Ramirez for the March 1995 murder of 71-year-old Mildred Boroski in Pasco County. Prosecutors sought and received a death sentence for Ramirez, who was 17 at the time of the murder.

Boroski, a widow from New Port Richey, was in bed hours after her birthday party when Ramirez and an 18-year-old friend broke in, hoping to steal gifts and money.

They tied her to her bed and killed her miniature poodle, Chippy, with a crowbar, then looted the house. Ramirez told detectives the 18-year-old raped Boroski before the teens drove her to a field. Ramirez then shot Boroski twice in the head.

Ramirez, now 27, was sentenced to death, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled police illegally obtained a confession and overturned both the conviction and the sentence.

Ramirez was tried again in 2003. A jury convicted and condemned a second time. His accomplice was sentenced to life in prison.

Even though he no longer will face death, Ramirez never will be eligible for parole because of a 1994 law that forces inmates convicted of first-degree murder to die in prison. Previously, those defendants became eligible for parole after 25 years.

The two other Florida juvenile offenders sentenced to death could become eligible for parole.

Cleo LeCroy, now 41, was convicted of fatally shooting a newlywed couple who were camping in rural Palm Beach County south of Lake Okeechobee in 1981. He will become eligible for parole in the next few years, though experts say it's unlikely he will go from death row to freedom.

The other death row inmate, James Bonifay, now 31, was condemned for the shooting death of Billy Wayne Coker in Pensacola in 1991.

All three Florida men will remain housed on death row until their lawyers get a judge to order them removed, state officials said.

Dillinger said the state parole board is very tough. "I wouldn't be worried from a citizen's point of view," he said.

Times staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified March 2, 2005, 04:47:24]

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