Glen McGinnis was nine years old the first time he was raped by his stepfather. His mother, a crack addict and a prostitute, offered little in the way of parenting. He was beaten with an electrical cord and a baseball bat, and burned with hot grease. When Glen was 17, he shot and killed a laundry attendant and was subsequently executed by the state of Texas.

His case is symptomatic of the cruel and unjustified manner by which the system of capital punishment in the United States fails to distinguish between children and adults. A deeply troubled adolescent should not be held accountable to the same standards to which we hold adults. Indeed, no child should be held to such standards.

While the perpetrators of violent crimes must be punished, there is a clear moral argument against executing child offenders and it happens to be the same argument the U.S. Supreme Court set forth when barring the execution of persons with mental retardation. Last June, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court found that executing those with mental retardation is cruel and unusual punishment due to the diminished capacity of such persons to fully understand their personal culpability and the legal ramifications of their actions. The numerous parallel arguments against executing those with mental retardation and executing juvenile offenders seemed to provide a new prism through which the Supreme Court could also view the execution of child offenders as unconstitutional.

Disappointingly, last month the Supreme Court refused to consider juvenile offender executions. A strong dissent issued by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer correctly noted that due to the arguments in Atkins v. Virginia, the ‘shameful practice’ of executing juveniles warrants revisiting. Justice Stevens called such executions ‘a relic of the past…inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.’

The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that executes juveniles, although the practice is in flagrant violation of internationally recognized human rights standards. Since 1990, the U.S. has led the world in the execution of child offenders, killing 18, while the rest of the world combined carried out 14 executions. Every nation in the world has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the execution of juveniles, except Somalia and the U.S. The latter is the same country in which our politicians claim, ‘We will leave no child behind.’

As the U.S. increasingly isolates itself from the international community because of its treatment of child offenders, it is a sad irony that outside of death row our society truly operates under the recognition that children are not as accountable as adults. It is a further irony that, for example, in Louisiana, a person under 18 isn’t permitted to witness an execution, but is permitted to be executed for a crime committed while under the age of 18. A person under the age of 18, by law, is not mature enough to vote, serve on a jury, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or enlist in the military. In this context, it is not surprising that national consensus for the abolition of juvenile executions already exists. Last May, a Gallup survey found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s failure to address the juvenile death penalty, state legislatures will play a key role in establishing the national consensus necessary to end this practice. The issue is presently before ten state legislatures: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Texas. State legislatures should seize this opportunity to update their death penalty laws and stop the execution of those who were under 18 at the time of the crime.

There are currently 82 juvenile offenders on death row; 82 children with various histories that our justice system has judged completely hopeless and irredeemable. We cannot let the injustice continue.

It has been said that the ultimate measure of a society is the way in which it treats its weakest constituents the marginalized ones: women, children, minorities, the indigent, and the disenfranchised. Ultimately, therefore, whether the U.S. continues to support the death penalty for juvenile offenders says something about us as a society about what we want our world to look like. The U.S. must join the international community and ban the revolting practice of executing juvenile offenders.

Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn is director of Amnesty International USA’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. For more information visit www.amnestyusa.org

Tags:

Comments

comments