Sedalia (MO) Democrat

October 19, 2004


Juveniles sometimes commit horrific crimes, some unimaginable even for adults. But all nations of the world except two — the United States and Somalia — refuse to put youthful offenders to death.

Even Iran and Congo have repudiated the practice in recent years.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a Missouri case that may lead to the banning of executions in this country for those who commit such crimes before they turn 18. The court struck down capital punishment for perpetrators age 15 or younger in 1988, ruling that executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The following year, however, it upheld the death penalty for 16-and 17-year-olds.

When the court drew the line at 16 for executing murderers, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the 5-4 majority, noted that a majority of the states still permitted executions for 16-and 17-year-olds. She said a national consensus existed against executing those younger than 16 but not those older. Since that ruling, 6 states have joined those that prohibit execution of those younger than 18. Nineteen states still permit the death penalty for those younger than 18, and 22 executions of juvenile offenders have been carried out since 1976. According to the American Bar Association, more than 70 are on death row right now. In addition to the national-consensus standard used in the 1988 and 1989 rulings, the court will consider research done in the intervening years about the development of children’s brains. Health organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association filed friends-of-the-court briefs citing research showing that executing those younger than 18 is to “hold them accountable not just for their acts, but also for the immaturity of their neural anatomy and psychological development.”

While one justice in particular, Anthony Kennedy, expressed skepticism over the mental development arguments against executing those younger than 18, there is little question that a nationwide and worldwide consensus has developed against executing those younger than 18. As states have done in this country, nations around the world have moved in the same direction. Today, the United States is the only nation with an organized government that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits executing juvenile offenders.

While holding young people responsible for their crimes, the United States must join the rest of the world in prohibiting the execution of those younger than 18.


Sedalia (MO) Democrat