Shreveport (LA) Times

April 13, 2004


The U.S. Supreme Court in October will take up the issue of capital punishment for those who committed crimes while juveniles. But the Louisiana Legislature need not wait on the justices to ban such executions.

Louisiana is in the minority when it comes to the death penalty for those under the age of 18, and the numbers are shrinking. Thirty-two states already ban the death penalty for juveniles; 43 have never used it for young offenders, regardless of what state law says.

Several states are considering legislation similar to that now being deliberated in Baton Rouge. House Bill 783 by Rep. Cheryl A. Gray, D-New
Orleans, and Senate Bill 221 by Sen. Don Cravins, D-Lafayette, would bar the death penalty for capital crimes committed by offenders younger than 18. Five people now sit on Louisiana’s death row for crimes committed as juveniles. The last such execution was 14 years ago.

The case that may lay the issue to rest for good is Roper v. Simmons, a Missouri case involving the killing of a woman by a 17-year-old. When the Court last considered the juvenile death penalty in 2002, dissenting
Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wrote, “The practice of executing [juvenile] offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice.”

Public opinion is similarly inclined. An ABC News Poll at the end of 2003 showed that just one-fifth of Americans support executing youth who commit capital crimes. But the grounds for altering Louisiana’s law are based on more than changing public opinion.

In testimony before the Nevada State Assembly last year voted to eliminate the juvenile death penalty, Dr. David Fassler of the Vermont Psychiatric Association testified to the physiological reasons adolescents are “much more likely to act on impulse, without considering the consequences of their actions, and [why] they are generally more receptive and responsive to intervention and rehabilitation.”

In a letter to a Florida newspaper, former first lady Rosalynn Carter wrote
“Acknowledging the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders does not minimize the suffering and impact upon their victims’ families. Tragically, there are juveniles who commit terrible crimes. But punishment is to be imposed according to the culpability of the offender.” And science increasingly calls the culpability of juveniles into question.


Shreveport (LA) Times