The Virginian-Pilot

October 7, 2004


True to Virginia’s roots, the state political establishment will cast its lot with the executioners when the U. S. Supreme Court takes up the juvenile death penalty on Oct. 13.

Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has joined his counterparts in Alabama, Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah in signing a legal brief supporting retention of the ultimate penalty for youths whose crimes were committed at ages 16 or 17.

Unfortunately, that’s par for the course from the state that carried out the first execution in the New World and that is second only to Texas in executions since death-penalty statutes were revised in the 1970s.

This time, however, the hang-‘em-high crowd won’t be the only ones representing Virginia at a Supreme Court death penalty hearing.

Also speaking loud and clear by their actions will be the Chesapeake jury that gave Lee Boyd Malvo life in prison, rather than death, for his role in the I-95 sniper killings two years ago.

That decision in one of the most notorious crime sprees in American history is powerful testament to evolving community standards on the execution of juveniles. Despite gruesome testimony about Malvo’s role in the cold-blooded, random killings, jurors appeared persuaded that his susceptibility to adult influence mitigated against death.

That, in fact, is the choice of most of the civilized world. When it comes to judging those whose crimes were committed before they turned 18, it is increasingly the choice of Americans as well.

An ABC News poll released in December 2003 showed seven out of 10 Americans oppose the execution of juvenile offenders. Thirty-one states now ban the practice. The two most recent additions, South Dakota and Wyoming, joined the list this spring.

Virginia is one of just six states that have carried out executions of individuals who were younger than 18 at the time of their offense.

Shamefully, three such deaths puts Virginia second only to Texas in the category.

Virginia politicians appear not to have heard, or at least heeded, the evolving science about adolescent brains. Increasingly sophisticated research affirms what many parents have long suspected: that full brain development does not occur until the late teens or 20s. Young males often display an impetuousness and lack of control that is eclipsed by age.

Since 1994, death sentences for juvenile offenders have dropped nationally. An intensive, soon-to-be-published Columbia University study credits evolving attitudes, rather than factors such as a decreased juvenile homicide arrest rate.

Regrettably, many leading Virginia politicians retain their knee-jerk embrace of capital punishment in broad form. When the Supreme Court struck down the penalty for individuals with mental retardation two years ago, state policy-makers cleaved to the losing side.

This time, however, their voices may be drowned out by the action of a conservative, tough-on-crime community that came face-to-face with the reality of juvenile crime and drew a life-and-death distinction.


The Virginian-Pilot