The United States executes Children

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"When a society starts killing its children, something is wrong, something is deadly wrong."
Joseph Green Brown, death row survivor, May 1998


"I don't think age matters when it comes to the death penalty. It is wrong for everybody. It would be selfish of me to say that just because I was under 18 when I was sentenced to die, my life would be more important that the older guys in here". Napoleon Beazley, Texas death row, 1998.

Children and the death penalty

"Usually, I don't like talking about what it's like in prison. But when young kids write to me, that's what they always ask and I try my best to answer. I tell them to envision themselves being locked in their room for over three years (I've been here a little over three years now). No school is allowed, no cassettes or CDs, no computer so definitely no e-mail. And imagine your mom lets you out in the backyard to play for two hours everyday, but afterwards it's back to the bedroom. Picture that and that's what it's like in prison. Throw 400-plus guys in there with you and add fights, killings, stabbings, and while you're at it you can add the fact that the system is all eager to stick some poison in your arm to kill you - that's prison.

Now, the reason I don't like to tell people about life in prison is that, when I tell you about my life, you can imagine it. Through my eyes, I'm bringing them in here. I'm locking them up, if only in mind. But I don't want to be here and I don't want them to be either. Prison is not a place you want to be in mind, spirit or body.

In the beginning they used to call me Youngster. But the other day, when I was on the basketball court, I heard someone call Youngster and I turned around. But he was talking to a new guy, even younger than me. So I'm already old in here and I'm barely 21.

Napoleon Beazley, juvenile offender, Texas death row, 1998 About one in 50 of the more than 3,400 individuals on death row in the USA were convicted of crimes committed when they were under 18. As this report will illustrate, there are specific reasons, backed by an overwhelming international consensus, to oppose their death sentences.

But it should not be forgotten that the use of the death penalty against anyone is a human rights violation of premeditated cruelty which denies the right to life proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Stopping the execution of juvenile offenders, while being a major objective in itself, is just one step on the road to total abolition.

More than one-third of the 75 inmates currently on death row for crimes they committed as juveniles are in Texas.

If the state of Georgia electrocutes Alexander Williams, 5 people who committed murder when they were 17 will have been put to death in 2000 in the United States. That is more than in any year since 1954, when 6 teenagers were executed in Florida and Georgia.

Mr. Williams, now 32, is one of 80 condemned youthful offenders -- those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes -- and while they make up only a small percentage of the overall death row population, more are awaiting execution than at any other time since the ban on capital punishment was lifted in 1976.

The practice of condemning teenagers reflects the complexity of attitudes about capital punishment in this country. While 23 of the 38 states that have the death penalty permit the execution of youthful, or juvenile, offenders, only a handful have actually carried out such executions since the death penalty was reinstated. Half of all condemned youthful offenders are in Texas and Alabama.

In South Carolina, where 4 youthful offenders are on death row, Wayne Bailey, a district attorney, expressed a view popular among supporters of the death penalty for those who committed capital crimes when they were younger than 18.

"If you do an adult crime," Mr. Bailey said, "the jury ought to have the option to come back with the death penalty."

But even many prosecutors who support the death penalty, as well as national organizations that are neutral on the issue, are expressing concern about sentencing to death those who were, according to most laws, still children when they committed their crimes. The United States is 1 of only 7 countries in the world that permit such executions, according to the State Department. Language prohibiting the practice is included in several international human rights treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which only the United States and Somalia have not yet ratified.

"It offends my conscience to execute someone who was under 18 at the time of the crime," said Joshua Marquis, a member of the board of the National Association of District Attorneys, the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and a supporter of the death penalty.

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The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds by one vote in a landmark 1989 ruling written by Justice Antonin Scalia. The previous year the court ruled that executing those under 16 was cruel and unusual punishment, but legal experts are split on whether that constitutes a ban on their execution. Since capital punishment was reinstated, no one younger than 16 at the time of the crime has been executed, and only one person who was 16 then has been executed.

Of the 23 states that permit the execution of youthful offenders, only 7 have carried out such executions since 1976. They are Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Experts say it is little surprise that most are Southern states, since the South has the highest incarceration and execution rates in general.

This year, Virginia and Texas each executed 2 men who committed their crimes when they were under 18.

Federal law prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders charged with federal crimes, and when New York reinstated the death penalty in 1995, it specifically excluded juvenile offenders. Kansas took the same step when it reinstated the death penalty in 1994. Montana outlawed the death penalty for its juvenile offenders last year.

Maryland raised the age for capital punishment to 18 in the late 1980's, and Washington State did so in 1993.

In South Carolina, several former prosecutors formed a group to protect youthful offenders last year when they learned their state had four on death row.

Zoe Sanders Nettles, a founder of the group, South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Execution of Children, said, "Considering all the ways the government has failed our children -- from crack babies to horrible public schools to miserable health care, we can at least ask the government not to willfully kill them."

In many ways Alexander Williams is the typical condemned youthful offender: Southern, black, poor and male, and his victim was white and female.

His lawyers have asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Mr. Williams's sentence to life imprisonment and are planning a last-minute appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. If that fails, they will appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

The American Bar Association and the Children's Defense Fund have condemned the sentencing to death of youthful offenders and have written letters to the pardons board on Mr. Williams's behalf. Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady, has also written, asking that Mr. Williams's sentence be commuted to life imprisonment.

Mrs. Carter wrote: "As a society we traditionally have given special consideration to children who commit crimes because we recognize that they lack the maturity or the mental capacity to function as adults." Mr. Williams's cause has also been taken up by the European Union, a measure of the repugnance other Western countries have for the execution of juvenile offenders. A European Union representative met with the Georgia pardons board yesterday to present an "urgent humanitarian appeal" for the sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment, a European Union official said.

While it is impossible to document with certainty the extent of the death penalty for juvenile offenders internationally, the State Department, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International report that the only countries other than the United States to have carried out such executions in the last 10 years are Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The United States has executed 14 juvenile offenders in that time, more than the other countries combined, according to Amnesty International. China, which executes more people than any other country in the world, formally banned the execution of juvenile offenders in 1997.

Other countries that allow the death penalty but prohibit it for juvenile offenders include Japan, Libya, Singapore and South Korea.

Besides the prohibition in the United Nations treaty, the execution of juvenile offenders is also banned under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The United States Senate voted to ratify this treaty in 1992 but specifically retained the right to execute juvenile offenders.

The United States is continuing a practice that dates to 1647, when 16-year-old Thomas Graunger was hanged in Plymouth Colony for bestiality involving a cow and a horse, said Victor L. Streib, a leading expert on juveniles and the death penalty, and the dean of Ohio Northern University College of Law.

The 6 teenagers who were executed in 1954 were all black and their crimes involved either the murder of white men or the rape of white girls. They were all aged 17 to 19 when they were electrocuted. Mr. Streib and other experts on adolescence and criminal justice say that the condemning of juvenile offenders can be viewed as an extreme expression of Americans' fears of violence and of the attitudes among politicians and law enforcement officials who want to be seen as tough on crime.

The experts say that the sentencing to death of juvenile offenders in more recent years reflects the trend toward treating them as adults, with their crimes judged as far more significant than the traditionally mitigating factor of their youth. The trend began with the sharp escalation of juvenile violent crime in the mid-1990's and has continued even as that crime rate has been declining in the last few years.

The experts say that this trend is occurring amid growing scientific evidence that the brain is still developing through adolescence and that with proper intervention violent juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated.

"The empirical and moral question here is, at what age can we be so sure of a person's inability to change in the context of an attempt by society to change that person that we would sentence that person to death?" said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and the director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. "I don't think that 16 or 17 seems like a very reasonable answer to that."

Alexander Williams was 17 in 1986 when he abducted 16-year-old Aleta Bunch from a shopping mall in Augusta and raped and fatally shot her. Aleta was a part-time secretary and a model who had talked of becoming a doctor.

Aleta's mother, Carolyn Bunch, said of her daughter's killer in a recent interview: "I don't care how old he was. He was old enough to know better. I could pull the switch on him and never have any remorse. He shot her 3 times in the forehead. He shot her eye out. He shot her in the heart."

Daniel Craig, the district attorney in Augusta, said in an interview that he opposed clemency for Mr. Williams because the jury had "determined that the appropriate response of a civilized society is the death penalty."

Under Georgia law, at 17 Mr. Williams was automatically charged as an adult, but it was the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty.

Mr. Williams is described in prison records as mentally ill; they say he has schizoaffective disorder, which leads him to worship the actress Sigourney Weaver as God and dress as the Lone Ranger in his cell, among other behaviors. As a juvenile, he was charged with several offenses, including reckless conduct for holding a knife to a 13-year-old classmate's throat.

Mr. Williams's sister, Alexsandriya Clemons, and half-brother, Rodney Blair, have both given affidavits describing the abuse their mother meted out to all of them as children. In an interview in Jackson, Ga., last month, where they were visiting their brother on death row, they said she had beaten them frequently with electrical cords, frying pans, belts, barbells and a vacuum cleaner. Their brother Alexander, they said, bore the brunt of the worst abuse.

"One time she was hitting his toes with a screwdriver and a hammer," Ms. Clemons said.

They said their mother, Pat Blair, held down three jobs while supporting five children. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

At the trial, Alexander Williams's lawyer, O. L. Collins, who has since died, did not present any of the details of his client's childhood. 4 jurors last week, joined by a fifth yesterday, gave affidavits saying that had they known about Mr. Williams's childhood abuse and his mental illness, they would not have voted to sentence him to death. It is for that reason they are asking the pardons board to grant him clemency.

Mr. Streib and other experts who have studied the youthful offenders on death row say that most grew up in fractured families marked by drugs, alcohol, violence and mental illness. As children they had to figure out "how not to get beaten to a pulp or sexually abused by one of the so-called adults who'd been placed in charge of them," said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has compiled the social histories of many youthful offenders on death row for defense lawyers. That kind of early abuse can lead to aggression and violence, Dr. Haney and other experts say.

Dr. Haney and others also say that the stereotypical image of teenage killers as superpredators who cannot be redeemed is not borne out by scientific evidence.

"Even people who are cynical about the rehabilitation of adults recognize that juveniles are different," Dr. Haney said. "It's the notion that human nature is unfolding. It's not until later in someone's life that you're willing to throw up your hands and say there is nothing more we can do now."

But many law enforcement officials view these offenders much differently.

"Gary Hart is not a kid," the prosecutor said during the trial of Gary Davis Hart II, who was 16 when he fatally shot a restaurant manager in Mobile, Ala., in 1989. "Gary Hart is a predator."

Gary Hart, 27, who is on death row, testified at trial that an older man had given him and a friend instructions on how to rob the restaurant. The shooting, he said, had been an accident. Once he had cocked the gun, he did not know how to uncock it, he said. He had taken the gun from the trunk of his mother's car.

Christopher Simmons, 24, who is on death row in Missouri, was 4 when his stepfather began taking him to bars and pouring him drinks, defense psychologists say. His stepfather would tie young Christopher to a tree when he went fishing.

At 17, in the course of a burglary in 1983, Christopher and a 15-year-old friend bound and gagged 46-year-old Shirley Crook and pushed her into a river, where she drowned. The 15-year-old accomplice was given life without parole.

"17 years old," the prosecutor said of Christopher at his trial. "Doesn't that scare you? Mitigating? Quite the contrary, I submit." The prosecutor suggested that Christopher's family would be better off if he were executed. "Show some mercy to his family," he said. "Give him death."

Kevin Hughes had a mother who was a schizophrenic and an alcoholic, according to court records, and he is also mentally ill. Left alone by their mother for weeks at a time, Kevin and his five siblings begged on the streets of Philadelphia for money and food, according to affidavits filed by several relatives. The mother had a series of violent boyfriends, who beat and raped Kevin while his mother laughed, according to the affidavits.

"Kevin got really bad beatings and whippings because he could not understand things and was mentally slow," his oldest brother said in his affidavit.

Mr. Hughes, who is 38 now, was 16 when he raped and strangled a 9-year- old girl, Rochelle Graham. He has been on death row in Pennsylvania for 17 years.

Profiles of Executed Children or Children on Death Row

Glen McGinnis