The Philadelphia Inquirer

July 30, 2004


Stop the slow march to death row

This nation shields 16-year-olds from the sex, violence and profanity of R-rated movies. Yet it executes murderers of the same age - as though they were mature enough to answer fully for their crimes.

Society says these teens cannot handle movie mayhem - nor drink, vote, or sign legal contracts - but that they’re as culpable as adults for serious criminal acts.

Who thinks that’s a crazy proposition? Quite a few folks. Among them: Official representatives from countries in Europe, from Canada and Mexico, and many other nations. There’s also former President Jimmy Carter, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association and religious groups.

In legal briefs filed recently, a coalition of citizens, groups and nations asked the U.S. Supreme Court to end the execution of juveniles as barbaric.

The court must do exactly that. It already has banned the execution of mentally retarded defendants on grounds that a “national consensus” views such executions as wrong. There’s a loud chorus and compelling scientific evidence in favor of ending executions of adolescents.

Of three-dozen states with capital punishment, nearly half allow the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds. New Jersey bans under-18 executions, but Pennsylvania and Delaware are bound only by an earlier Supreme Court ban on the penalty for anyone under 16.

Time was, this nation was a global pacesetter in reforms dealing with troubled youth. Many Americans grasped that teens differ from adults, in that their minds haven’t finished developing, and that they might yet be rescued from a life of crime.

In the last two decades, with the spike in youth crime, the coining of the term “superpredator” for youthful offenders, and a get-tough, three-strikes mentality, that understanding waned.

Nearly 80 juvenile offenders inhabit the nation’s death rows, including three in Pennsylvania. Across the board, their crimes were bone-chilling. They deserve to be imprisoned for their deeds. But they do not deserve to die.

There are good reasons why only a handful of nations send offenders ages 16 and 17 to death row.

Scientific evidence - developed, in part, by University of Pennsylvania professor Ruben Gur at his Brain Behavior Laboratory - documents that teens’ still-developing brains can be ill-equipped to grasp the consequences of actions, to think ahead, or control impulses.

This is not about letting violent teens run wild. It is about understanding some criminals’ youth precludes sending them to death row.


Philadelphia Inquirer