Roanoke Times and World News

July 23, 2004


Lawyers representing Virginia are among those arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that states know better whether killers who committed crimes as juveniles deserve the death penalty.

The justices should dismiss the errant position staked out by Virginia and a few other states and heed the call of an impressive group, including Nobel laureates, that has asked the court to end the execution of killers who committed crimes as teens.

Certainly, young people should be held accountable for heinous acts of violence. But a truly just and humane society should recognize youth as a mitigating factor for sparing its young from the most severe form of criminal punishment.

As previously noted on this page, both science and experience illustrate that young people often lack the maturity, moral gauge, judgment and ability to control their impulses.

When the court considers the case this fall, it also should weigh other factors that undercut the argument favoring executions in general, including racial disparity and the quality of legal representation for the poor.

Just as the Supreme Court previously banned executions for children under 16 and for the retarded, it should summon such sensible judgment and ban the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The United States is one of only a few nations that allow the death penalty for crimes committed before 18.

The Nobel laureates - including Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev - filed a brief this week urging the court to end the practice, correctly saying it makes the United States look hypocritical on human rights.

But lawyers for Virginia, Delaware, Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas said the decision of who is executed belongs to states:

“[Our] experience strongly indicates that a bright-line rule categorically exempting 16- and 17-year-olds from the death penalty … would be arbitrary at best and downright perverse at worst.”

No, what’s perverse is a nation willing to send its young to the death chamber. The court should so rule.


Roanoke Times & World News