Daytona Beach News-Journal

July 26, 2004


A first kiss, a first time behind the wheel, a first college-entrance exam — these are the experiences of teen-hood. Death row shouldn’t be one of them.

The United States is one of just five countries that still executes offenders who committed murder when they were younger than 18. In this, it joins an infamous group of nations including Iran, the Sudan and China, reviled the world over for abusing their citizens. Even among so abhorrent a crowd, America stands out. It put to death more offenders who committed crimes as young teenagers in the past 13 years than the rest of the world combined.

It did so even as medical science revealed that adolescents’ brains are markedly different from adults’. The part of the brain that controls reason is still developing in the teen years. Emotion and instinct may have more sway over human reaction in teenagers and young adults.

In other considerations, the state recognizes that children are not the same as adults. That’s why they are prohibited from offering their lives in military service or performing the civic duty of voting until they’re 18. They’re banned from drinking until they’re 21. But the country persists in treating children as adults, ascribing them with all the reason and intellect of a mature person when meting out the final judgment, the penalty of death.

The United States deserves the scorn of its peers for continuing so barbaric a practice. It received it in spades last week. Forty-eight nations, 14 Nobel Peace Prize winners and dozens of medical, international and religious groups filed legal briefs urging the U.S. Supreme Court to halt executions of death row inmates who committed murder before they turned 18.

International embarrassment, however, won’t win the day come October when the high court takes up the Missouri case, Roper v. Simmons. In 1993, Christopher Simmons broke into Shirley Crook’s home, bound and gagged her and drove to a bridge, where he shoved her to her death. He was 17. A jury found Simmons guilty, and he was sentenced to die. But the Missouri Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, overturned the sentence.

Four justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are on record opposing the death penalty for young murderers, citing the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, so far, a fifth justice has been unwilling to overturn the court’s 1989 decision permitting states to execute offenders who committed their crimes at 16 or 17.

Of the 37 states that execute convicted murderers, 19 allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be put to death. Shamefully, Florida is one of them. Florida Sen.Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty, has tried for five years to persuade lawmakers to raise the age to 18. Each year it fails in the heat of House members’ extremist rhetoric.

We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize that the death penalty does little but promote vengeance and justify a killer’s own logic — it’s acceptable to take a life. In a righteous nation, the state-sanctioned killing of children — even those who have killed another — cannot be tolerated.


Daytona Beach News-Journal