News & Observer

July 24, 2004


With its annual list of violator countries, the United States claims the title of defender of human rights, and given its heritage and standing in the world, the title is fitting. A chink in the claim, however, is that 19 states allow the execution of people who committed capital crimes at the ages of 16 or 17.

True, that age bracket is on the cusp of what is typically considered adulthood. But there is no getting around the fact that 16- or 17-year-olds, no matter how horrible a crime they may have committed, are not adults. Treating them in every respect as if they were holds people who may be immature or vulnerable to adult standards of accountability — and paints the United States as a human rights hypocrite.

It also should be sufficient reason for the Supreme Court to heed petitions from several impressive groups to outlaw execution of people whose crimes were committed while they essentially were still children. The justices this fall will reconsider whether executing such juvenile killers constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Nineteen states allow execution of people who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes. In North Carolina, those who were 17 can be put to death.

Several former diplomats in one of the petitioning groups noted that in the past four years, only the United States, Congo, China, Iran and Pakistan have let such prisoners be executed. The United States should do all it can to drop out of that club. They also noted that in the United States, more such criminals were sent to their deaths from 1990 to 2003 than in the rest of the world combined. Diplomats know firsthand how badly those grim facts play in other capitals.

Also asking the high court to end the policy are a number of American allies, a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and this nation’s largest doctors group, and for good reason. People in their middle teens can do dreadful and vicious things, but a humane society will err on the side of restraint in punishing them, to maintain the distinction our justice system properly draws between children and adults.

America’s long history of allowing for execution under these circumstances doesn’t make the policy right. On this issue, the nation, represented by the justices on the high court, would do well to practice the human rights that it preaches.


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