Still Surviving is First-hand Account of Death Row by Juvenile Offender

In his book “Still Surviving,” Nanon Williams, who was 17 at the time of the crime that placed him on death row, provides a first hand account of living under a sentence of death in Texas. The book details Williams’s journey from teenage boy to adulthood while living in the shadow of the nation’s busiest execution chamber. His text introduces readers to the experiences of solitary confinement and having friends executed, as well as to maintaining relationships with those on the other side of the prison gate. (Breakout Publishing Co., 2003) Read more about Nanon Williams. See Books.

Jurors Sentence Lee Malvo to Life Without Parole

Jurors in Virginia sentenced juvenile offender Lee Boyd Malvo to life in prison without parole after finding him guilty of murdering Linda Franklin, who was one of 10 victims killed during a series of shootings in October 2002. Malvo was 17 at the time of the crime. Attorney General John Ashcroft had cited Virginia’s ability to impose “the ultimate sanction” in sending Malvo and his mentor, John Muhammad, to Virginia for prosecution. Virginia is one of only 21 states that allow the execution of those who were 16 or 17 at the time of their crime. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia is one of only six states that have executed someone whose crime was committed as a juvenile. (Associated Press, December 23, 2003). See Life Without Parole


ABC Poll Shows Public Opposed to Death Penalty for Malvo

A new poll conducted by ABC News revealed that only 37% of the public supports the death penalty for Lee Boyd Malvo, who was recently convicted of murder in Virginia. Malvo was 17 at the time of a series of shootings in the Washington, DC area. 52% of respondents preferred a sentence of life without parole for Malvo. Even stronger opposition to the death penalty for juveniles in general was revealed in the same poll: only 21% were in favor of the death penalty for juveniles, versus the 62% who preferred the sentence of life without parole. The poll was conducted Dec. 10-14 (ABC News, Dec. 19, 2003). See Public Opinion.

Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation Releases Juvenile Report

On December 17, 2003, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation released a report regarding the perspectives of family members on the juvenile death penalty: “I Don’t Want Another Kid to Die.” The report opens a window into murder victims’ families struggles with the death penalty in general, and more specifically, how the issue changes when the defendant is a juvenile.

Polling Reveals Only a Minority of Americans Supports Execution of Juvenile Offenders

A series of public opinion polls reveals that only about a third of Americans support the death penalty as applied to those who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crime. Recent survey results include the following:

  • A fall 2001 National Opinion Research Center poll found that while 62% of respondents favored the death penalty in general, only 34% supported the execution of juvenile offenders. In a series of follow-up questions that further probed respondents about their positions, it was determined that the opposition to the juvenile death penalty is firmer (89.5% of respondents did not change their position) than support for the death penalty generally (67% unchanged after follow-up questions).
  • A similar 2001 poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates revealed that while 72% of those polled supported the death penalty, only 38% supported it when applied to “juveniles younger than 18.”
  • A May 2002 Gallup poll found 72% support for capital punishment in general, but that support dropped to 26% for juveniles convicted of murder, 19% for the mentally ill, and 13% for the mentally retarded.

(Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2003) See Public Opinion.

Nobel Laureates Oppose Death Penalty, Decry Execution of Juvenile Offenders

A gathering of Nobel Laureates in Rome concluded with a common statement calling for abolition of the death penalty and specifically decrying the death penalty for juvenile offenders. The statement noted “the death penalty is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment that should be abolished. It is especially unconscionable when imposed on children.” Among those in attendance at the summit were Mikhail Gorbachev, former Israel Prime Minister Simon Peres, the Dalai Lama, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Lech Walesa, Betty Williams, Jody Williams, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, and a number of organizations that participated in the summit. (Fourth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, November 30, 2003). See New Voices and International Death Penalty.

USA Today: Death Penalty Distorts the Judicial System

In an editorial published after a Virginia jury recommended a death sentence for John Muhammad, USA Today noted that the case of Muhammad and his juvenile co-defendant “undermines public confidence that the law is applied objectively.” The editorial criticized the manipulative placement of the case into Virginia courts and the stretching of Virginia’s law to achieve the death penalty. Usually, Virginia has required that the defendant be the actual shooter to be eligible for a death sentence. And Virginia’s new terrorism law may have been expanded considerably beyond its original intent for this case:

In this instance, the bending of the system began early. After the arrests of Muhammad and his teenage companion, Lee Malvo, Attorney General John Ashcroft seized control of the suspects. Though the pair had been caught in Maryland, where most of the killings occurred, federal authorities handed them over to Virginia for trial. One unvarnished reason was that Malvo was a juvenile. Maryland does not permit the execution of juvenile offenders. Virginia does.

Shopping for the most pro-death judicial venue and then custom-fitting new and existing laws to ensure what Ashcroft calls the “ultimate sanction” make prosecutors and law enforcement officials look as if they were willing to go to great lengths Ñ and even stretch the law Ñ to achieve a death-penalty conviction.

But twisting justice wasn’t necessary to protect the nation and punish the criminal. Life without parole would have served equally well.

The overzealous application of Virginia’s death penalty laws means that Muhammad’s case is likely to command the nation’s attention through years of appellate maneuvering. Life without parole would have forestalled that tedious endgame without ever calling into question the integrity of the judicial establishment.

(USA Today, November 25, 2003) See DPIC’s report on the Politicization of the Death Penalty: “Killing for Votes”


Psychologist Cautions that Adolescent Brains Are Still Developing

In an interview in the Science section of the New York Times, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and the director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, states that juvenile offenders should be viewed under the law as less culpable than adults because their brains are still developing. In a forthcoming paper, Steinberg argues for a legal approach “under which most youths are dealt with in a separate justice system and none are eligible for capital punishment” (emphasis added). In the interview, which addresses the culpability of juveniles facing the death penalty, Dr. Steinberg discusses the new science of brain development that indicates maturation is going on much later in development than people had thought and thus that 17-year-olds may not be the same as adults. Steinberg notes that one

type of evidence has to do with improved connection between the limbic system, which is deep inside the brain and which is where a lot of emotional stimuli are processed, and the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of decision-making activity. We believe, we don’t know for sure, but we believe that this might lead to an improvement in decision making, so that, in the younger adolescent’s brain, it’s more likely that a very strong emotion will overwhelm rational decision making.

(New York Times, November 25, 2003)

President Carter Calls on U.S. to Protect Children’s Rights

In a speech urging U.S. leaders to ratify the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which forbids the execution of juvenile offenders, President Jimmy Carter noted that the United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the U.N. that have not approved the guidelines. “My wife (Rosalyn) writes letters to the governors of each state when a child is going to be executed,” Carter noted as he praised his wife’s work to end the juvenile death penalty. Carter added that America’s objection to the CRC because it forbids the juvenile death penalty weakens the United Nation’s ability to fight for children’s rights in other areas of law, including a ban on the use of juvenile soldiers. “These kids are often 8 and 10 years old, and all they have are AK-47s. The United States is seen as the most prominent world leader…yet, by not supporting the UN Convention, other countries see that the United States does not have an intense commitment to the rights of children.” (The Emery Wheel, October 22, 2003)

Editorial Decries Virginia’s Juvenile Death Penalty Law

The Washington Post recently responded to Judge Jane Marum Roush’s decision allowing Virginia to seek the death penalty for Lee Boyd Malvo despite treaties forbidding such a sentence for juveniles. The paper’s editorial noted that while the judge’s decision may be legally correct, it “does not render Virginia’s (juvenile death penalty) policy any less abhorrent.” The editorial went on to state:

Virginia’s juvenile death penalty should not be abolished by a judge because the French object to it. But we hope that someday soon it will be abolished by the General Assembly because Virginians object to it — and in that regard, international opinion is one factor worthy of consideration… .

[W]hatever one thinks of capital punishment, it ought not be applied to children, whose personalities and capacities for judgment are not yet fully formed. Government takes on, in general, a protective role with respect to children — one that sometimes restricts their liberty and the liberty of adults in dealing with them, by way of keeping them safe. It is an abdication of that protective role for state governments, even in prosecuting terrible crimes, to respond to youth crime by seeking execution. To sentence someone to die for a crime committed as a child, one has to believe that — in the long natural life the defendant would otherwise have before him — meaningful change and some measure of redemption are either impossible or unimportant.
(Washington Post, September 19, 2003).

Missouri Supreme Court Throws Out Juvenile Death Sentence Based on Evolving Standards of Decency

In a 4-3 decision to vacate the death sentence of juvenile offender Christopher Simmons, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile death penalty violates the nation’s evolving standards of decency and is therefore unconstitutional. Noting that “a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders,” the Court’s opinion cited evidence such as the growing number of states that have banned the practice. The Court resentenced Simmons to life in prison without parole. According to the current statute law in Missouri, defendants age 16 and over at the time of their crime can be sentenced to death. That law had been upheld by a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 2003). Sixteen other states forbid the death penalty for juveniles.

NEW RESOURCE: Amnesty International Report Examines Execution of Juvenile Offenders

A new report by Amnesty International, “The Exclusion of Child Offenders from the Death Penalty Under General International Law,” examines the evidence supporting the conclusion that the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders is prohibited under customary international law. The practice is already prohibited by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, notes that the U.S. claims to be “the global leader in child protection” while simultaneously holding the record for the highest number of juvenile offender executions in the world. (Amnesty International Press Release, July 18, 2003). Read the Report.

Kentucky Governor To Commute Sentence of Juvenile Offender

Kentucky Governor Paul Patton said that he will commute the death sentence of Kevin Stanford, a juvenile offender whose 1989 case before the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a ruling allowing the execution of those who were 16 or 17-years-old at the time of their crime. This will be the first time Patton has commuted a death sentence since he took office, and he noted in his announcement that the justice system “perpetuated an injustice” in Stanford’s case. Stanford has been on Kentucky’s death row for two decades for a murder he committed when he was 17. During that time, his case has served as a cornerstone in the national debate about the execution of juvenile offenders. Patton is still considering whether he will commute the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole or to a lesser sentence. (Herald-Leader, June 19, 2003)

Canadian Juvenile Offender Could Face Death Penalty At Guantanamo Bay

American military officials say that a Canadian teen being held at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba could be eligible for the death penalty. The 17-year-old boy was captured in Afghanistan last July and is accused of killing a U.S. medic during battle as a member of al-Qaida. After 18 months of imprisonment, none of the 700 detainees have been officially charged, but a review of their cases by President George W. Bush is pending. Some of the cases could involve capital charges, and officials note that the government is considering establishing a death row and an execution chamber at the camp for prisoners convicted by upcoming military tribunals. (Calgary Sun, June 4, 2003).

Texas is the World’s Only Jurisdiction to Execute Juveniles Offenders in 2002

According to a recent report issued by Amnesty International, Texas was the only jurisdiction in the world to execute a juvenile offender in 2002. Texas executed three black juvenile offenders last year, Napoleon Beazley, T.J. Jones, and Toronto Patterson. Amnesty International reports that seven countries since 1990 are known to have executed prisoners who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime - Congo (Democratic Republic), Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United States, and Yemen. Of these nations, the United States has executed the largest number of juvenile offenders. Read the report.

Oklahomans Support Ban on Execution of Juvenile Offenders

A recent poll of Oklahoma residents revealed that 62.8% of those surveyed would support a legislative ban on the execution of juvenile offenders if the alternative sentencing option of life without the possibility of parole were offered. The polling results were released shortly before Oklahoma carried out the execution of a juvenile offender, Scott Allen Hain. (The Oklahoman, April 3, 2003)
The University of Oklahoma poll also found that 49.3% of those polled favored a moratorium on executions in the state so that a study of capital punishment can be done, and 83.5% of respondents either somewhat agree or strongly agree that the state has probably executed an innocent person.

Nevada House Votes to Spare Juveniles

Members of Nevada’s Assembly overwhelmingly passed three legislative measures to reform the state’s death penalty. The bills include a ban on the execution of juvenile offenders and those with mental retardation. The third piece of legislation adds the mitigating factor of mental illness to those factors considered by the sentencing jury and gives defense counsel the last argument during the sentencing phase of a capital trial. Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, chair of the interim committee that studied Nevada’s death penalty and introduced the three measures, said, “I think it reflects the evolving opinion of Nevadans and the nation about how the death penalty can be applied fairly and appropriately.” The bills now move to the Senate for consideration. (Las Vegas Sun, April 1, 2003)

Supreme Court Allows Execution of Oklahoma Juvenile Offender

In a 5-4 vote that occured late on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision to hear oral arguments in the case of Scott Allen Hain, a juvenile offender in Oklahoma, on May 6th. The Supreme Court’s decision allowed Oklahoma to move forward with the scheduled execution, and Hain was executed that evening. (Associated Press, April 4, 2003) Just one day before the scheduled execution, the 10th Circuit stayed the execution to allow additional time to consider Hain’s most recent appeal. Hain was seeking federal funds to pay lawyers to prepare his case for a second state clemency hearing. Although the 10th Circuit recently ruled that death row inmates are not entitled to federal funds to pay their lawyers in such proceedings, the court’s decision to grant Hain this stay would have given the panel an opportunity to revisit that ruling. (Reuters, April 3, 2003)
The juvenile death penalty has come under increased scrutiny in recent months. In a dissent authored after the Supreme Court’s decision to not grant a hearing to juvenile offender Kevin Stanford, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by three other Justices, wrote, “All of this leads me to conclude that offenses committed by juveniles under the age of 18 do not merit the death penalty. The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We should put an end to this shameful practice.”

Juvenile Case in South Carolina Mirrors Earlier Execution of 14-Year-Old

In 1944, a 14-year-old boy named George Stinney Jr. was executed in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Stinney was one of the youngest persons to be executed in the United States in the 20th century, and his electrocution shocked many people around the country. In addition to the controversy surrounding the execution of a juvenile, Stinney’s case was also disturbing because of the poor representation he had received.
Today, the same county in South Carolina is preparing to execute another black defendant who was only 16 at the time of his crime. The South Carolina Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the case of Robert Conyers, who is now represented by attorney David Bruck. Bruck stressed that many of the culpability issues and racial bias factors that were called into question in the Stinney case also apply to his client. Harold Detwiler, Conyers original trial attorney, had never handled a death penalty case before and mishandled his client’s trial by providing a shoddy defense and allowing inaccurate expert testimony. The appeal will serve as a measuring stick to determine “how far our standards of due process and fair play have progressed” in Clarendon County, according to Bruck. Urging the Justices to consider Clarendon County’s history with the juvenile death penalty and to issue a ruling that reflects South Carolina’s evolving standards regarding the execution of juvenile offenders, Bruck noted, “If this execution is carried out, the whole world will be watching.” (Associated Press, January 23, 2003. The State, January 21, 2003, and The Washington Post, September 15, 1985)