Greensboro (NC) News and Record

January 30, 2004


Five prisoners on North Carolina’s death row are among the 73 inmates in America who will anxiously await a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The prisoners were under 18 years old when they committed murder.

This week the nation’s highest court agreed to review whether the U.S. Constitution permits juveniles to be executed. The court will decide if those who were 16 or 17 years old when they committed murder can be given the death penalty. Of the 38 death-penalty states, 17 forbid executing those who killed when they were under 18. North Carolina permits executions if the crime occurred when the killer was 17 but not 16.

America is the only Western democracy that still legalizes executions. This page is an opponent of capital punishment because we believe it is arbitrarily and capriciously applied. We believe that life imprisonment without parole is the proper punishment.

The advent of DNA testing in the late 1980s has revealed the innocence of more than 100 people on death rows. In some cases prisoners have been within hours of execution. The uncertainty about the guilt of death-row inmates reconfirms our opposition to capital punishment. So do disclosures about inadequate legal counsel for those facing capital crimes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has deliberated in the past about juvenile executions. In 1989, the court said it was unconstitutional to execute people when they were younger than 16 at the time of the crime because it violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court’s decision, it said, was influenced by the growing disuse of juvenile executions and by state laws and public attitudes (it weighed similar factors when it banned the execution of the mentally retarded).

Yet in 2002, the court refused to reconsider juvenile executions despite urging from four justices — David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. The justices said executing 16- and 17-year-olds was “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in civilized society.” But they needed a fifth justice to create a majority.

The court will not hear arguments in the current case until next October, and the outcome is uncertain. The specific case involves a Missouri man who murdered a woman when he was 17. The killing was grisly. He robbed her, wrapped her head in duct tape and tossed her off a railroad bridge. He is now 27 (four of the North Carolina inmates are now in their 20s, another in his 30s).

In recent years the Supreme Court has chipped at the margins of the death penalty. It banned execution of the retarded and raised standards for legal counsels. It is time for the court to end juvenile executions, too.


Greensboro (NC) News and Record