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Alabama Prisoner Seeks Stay, Reprieve to Challenge the Death Penalty for 19-Year-Old Offenders

Facing a May 16, 2019 execution date, Alabama death-row prisoner Michael Brandon Samra (pictured) has asked the United States Supreme Court and Governor Kay Ivey to halt his execution and for the Court to consider the constitutionally of imposing the death penalty upon 19-year-old offenders. In a petition filed on April 27, Samra—a teenage offender with borderline intellectual functioning—asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the appropriate age cutoff for banning the execution of youthful offenders. He also has asked Ivey for a reprieve to permit courts to rule on the issue.

In 2005, the Supreme Court barred the execution of people for crimes committed before age 18. That decision, in Roper v. Simmons, extended the Court’s prior age prohibition on the application of the death penalty to offenders younger than age 16. Samra’s attorneys argue that new research in neuroscience shows that key areas of the adolescent brain continue to mature through a person’s early twenties. Although the question Samra’s lawyers formally presented to the Court is whether the Eighth Amendment “permit[s] the execution of youthful offenders who … were 19 years old at the time of their crime,” the petition urges the Court to forbid the execution of offenders younger than age 21. “Compared to adults, persons in their late teens and early 20’s [sic] are: (1) more likely to poorly assess risk, (2) more likely to engage in sensation-seeking, (3) less able to control their impulses and consider the consequences of their actions, (4) have underdeveloped basic cognitive abilities as compared to emotional abilities, (5) are more affected by peer pressure,” Samra’s petition explains. His attorneys wrote, “This Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence should reflect the reality that a person’s neurological and psychological development does not suddenly stop on his 18th birthday.”

Samra’s petition to the high court cites a 2017 decision by a Kentucky trial court, which held that “the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age.” That case is currently under appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court and Samra’s attorneys have asked Governor Ivey to grant a reprieve until it is decided. “To prevent a miscarriage of justice and ensure that Alabama does not carry out an unconstitutional execution, Samra respectfully requests a reprieve until the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled on the question that would determine whether Samra is categorically eligible for the death penalty,” Samra’s attorney wrote. The plea for a reprieve also notes that Samra was less involved in the planning and carrying out of the crime, compared to his co-defendant, Mark Duke. It says that Samra helped Duke kill Duke’s father, his father’s girlfriend, and her two daughters, but that Duke planned the killings and killed three of the four victims. Duke, who was 16 at the time of the crimes, was sentenced to death. However, his death sentence was overturned when the Supreme Court decided Roper in 2005.

If the Supreme Court and the governor allow Samra’s execution to proceed, it will be the sixth in the United States in 2019, and the second in Alabama. Tennessee has scheduled the execution of Donnie Edward Johnson for the same night, May 16. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court denied Samra's petition for review on May 14. Gov. Ivey denied his clemency application May 16 and he was executed that evening.]


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Saudi Arabia Condemned for Mass Execution of 37 People, Including Juveniles, After Unfair Trials

In an action condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups as a flagrant violation of international law, Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 people, including juvenile offenders, in six separate locations on April 23, 2019. It was the nation’s largest mass execution since January 2016. Most of the people executed were members of the Shi’a Muslim minority community. The human rights advocates blasted Saudi officials for targeting politically disfavored groups and disregarding international fair trial norms. At least three of those executed were minors at the time of their alleged crimes. Executing juvenile offenders violates two international agreements Saudi Arabia has agreed to, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture.

Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International called the Saudi mass beheadings a “gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority.” The Saudi Kingdom has long been accused of using the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process. It drew criticism last year for using the threat of capital punishment against peaceful human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, as part of a crackdown on women’s rights activists.

According to Human Rights Watch, 25 of the 37 men executed were convicted in two mass trials that involved allegations that authorities had tortured prisoners to obtain confessions. “Saudi authorities will inevitably characterize those executed as terrorists and dangerous criminals,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, “but the reality is that Saudi courts are largely devoid of any due process and many of those executed were condemned based solely on confessions they credibly say were coerced.” At one of the mass trials, 11 men were convicted of spying for Iran, and at the other, 14 were convicted of violence committed during anti-government demonstrations. The court rejected all allegations of torture and ignored defendants’ requests for video footage from the prison that could have shown the torture. International human rights organization Reprieve said the three juveniles were among those denied basic legal rights, and two of them were severely beaten to obtain confessions.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a statement on the executions, saying, “I strongly condemn these shocking mass executions across six cities in Saudi Arabia yesterday in spite of grave concerns raised about these cases by numerous UN Special Rapporteurs, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and others. … I urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately launch a review of its counter-terrorism legislation and amend the law to expressly prohibit the imposition of the death penalty against minors.” Saudi Arabia has performed at least 104 executions so far in 2019, far outpacing 2018, when it executed 149 people over the course of the year. Amnesty reported that only China and Iran carried out more executions than Saudi Arabia last year.


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