Baltimore Sun
July 27, 2004
International shame

THE SUPREME COURT has the chance this fall to step in and affirm that

teenage criminals ought not be sentenced to death, because they are not

old enough to be fully responsible for their judgment and their actions.

The juvenile death penalty, in place in 19 states and actively used in

seven, qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the

Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, according to a Missouri appellate court

ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court will review next session. And it

doesn’t deter crime or reflect the American ideal of treating children

differently from adults.

With this case, the court could put a stop to the practice, and it

should. Executing people for crimes they committed as 16- and

17-year-olds violates widely accepted human rights norms, as the

25-nation European Union and 23 other nations put it in a brief filed in

support of the Missouri case the court will consider next session. Such

policies isolate the United States from its allies and diminish the

power of its diplomats to speak out convincingly on the whole array of

human rights issues.

Child executions violate “minimum standards of decency now adopted by

nearly every other nation in the world, including even autocratic

regimes with poor human rights records,” reads a brief signed by retired

U.S. diplomats, including former Ambassadors Stuart E. Eizenstat,

Thomas R. Pickering and Felix G. Rohatyn. The only other countries that

killed convicts of mortal crimes committed in their youth in the past

four years were China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan, the diplomats say –

not America’s usual crowd. Maryland does not allow such executions;

Virginia does.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for

offenders younger than 16, but the next year upheld it for those 16 and

older, reflecting the fears that a generation of “superpredators” was

coming. It never did. And in 2002, the court banned executing mentally

retarded convicts, saying a “national consensus” considered such

executions wrong.

Research continues to confirm that the areas of the brain responsible

for impulse control and moral reasoning do not mature fully until age 18

(and sometimes into the mid-20s), the American Medical Association,

American Psychiatric Association and hundreds of other medical groups

and individuals repeated in a letter in support of abolition.

That matches the common wisdom hard-earned by parents, teachers and others in day-to-day contact with teenagers.

In a nation where 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t considered legally mature

enough to vote or buy beer, it strains credulity to argue that they

should have complete control over themselves in just this one, most

extreme, part of the law.

Compassion, coupled with scientific fact, argues for life.