By Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Although Black and Brown juveniles represent 21 percent of the 16- to 17 year-olds in America, they represent more than triple that proportion (66 percent) of all death row inmates sentenced as juveniles.
Why is this? David Elliott, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), asks rhetorically. Its because the death penalty preys upon the most vulnerable in our society.
The question of whether 16-and 17-year-olds should receive the death penalty is receiving increased scrutiny now that the U. S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Missouri case Simmons v. Roper - challenging the pending execution of a man who was 17 at the time of his crime.
If the decision is overturned later this year, it could spare the lives of 34 African-Americans (45 percent); 24 Whites (32 percent); 14 Latinos (19 percent); and 2 Asians (2 percent) currently on death row for crimes committed when they were juveniles, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D. C.
The number of 16 and 17-year-old juveniles of color in the U. S. total 2.6 million, less than half of the 5.5 million Whites in the same age category. Yet, the percentage of juveniles of color on death row stands at 66 percent while the percentage of White juveniles comprise less than half 32 percent. Whites represent 43.4 percent of the 16 and 17-year-old population in the U. S.
You already start off having a racial disparity with the people on death row [generally of all ages] being 55 percent people of color, says Elliott. Then, when you look at the marginalized groups the mentally retarded, juveniles you find increased evidence of racial bias.
Across the country, anti-death penalty organizations have been energized by the Supreme Courts decision to hear an appeal of a Missouri Supreme Court ruling. The defendant, Christopher Simmons, now 27, was 17 when he murdered a woman who recognized him when he and a 15-year-old companion burglarized her house. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to overturn his death sentence because of his age, noting that the executions of juveniles have become so rare that they constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
''Individuals under the age of 18 cannot vote, cannot serve in the military without their parents permission, cannot purchase liquor, and, in the state of Louisiana, they cannot witness an execution unless they are the one being put to death, says William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. Society recognizes the diminished accountability of those under the age of 18 in [every] aspect of civil life but this one.''
Society traditionally does not kill the young because the general belief is that they may not know the difference between right and wrong. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled it illegal to execute anyone under the age of 16. In 1989, the court declined to extend the same rule to 16 and 17-year-olds, leaving that decision up to states.
The U. S. is a minority because it continues to execute juveniles. Several anti-juvenile death penalty treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, have been signed by U. S. presidents, but not ratified by the U. S. Senate. The U. N. resolution, signed in 1999 by President Clinton, prohibited the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
Every nation in the world ratified the treaty, except the U.S. and Somalia. Only four other countries Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia allow the execution of juveniles.
Over the past 10 years, Pakistan, China, Yemen, and Zimbabwe have abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Many other countries have severely curtailed juvenile executions, including Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
Amnesty International began a global campaign last month to abolish the death penalty for juvenile offenders, calling it a heinous practice.
Anti-death penalty activists hope that if enough states abolish the juvenile death penalty before the courts decision, that might create the same level of opposition that the court observed two years ago when it banned executions of mentally retarded people. The court said then that growing public sentiment against the execution of the mentally retarded indicated changing standards of decency.
At this time, 17 states have no death penalty for juveniles, 15 states have it but have not used it since 1976 when the death penalty moratorium was lifted.
A Supreme Court decision resulted in a national moratorium in 1972 because the court ruled that laws governing the death penalty in some states were arbitrary and capricious, therefore constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 54 percent of the nearly 4,000 death row inmates between the 1930s and 1960s were Black.
After death penalty laws were tightened at the state level, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976. Legal executions resumed the following year.
Speaking at a hearing last week during the Virginia General Assembly National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Executive Director Brian Roberts, pleaded, We realize that minors are not as capable as adults in making responsible decisions. So, we place restrictions on them Yet, there is one area where we fall woefully short in the protection and nurturance of our children. That is the criminal justice system.
It was the Virginia case of convicted sniper Lee Boyd Malvo that gained national attention when Malvo was spared the death penalty. He was 17 at the age of his crimes. His adult co-conspirator, John Muhammad, was sentenced to death.
Since 1976, 22 juvenile offenders have been executed in seven states: Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. Texas alone carried out 13 executions, almost two-thirds of the total.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports:
Of the 10 female juvenile offenders executed in the United States since 1976, eight were African-American and one was Native American. In each of those cases, the victim was White;
Southern states account for 84 percent of all death sentences imposed on juvenile offenders since 1976. Three states Texas, Florida and Alabama account for half of those sentences and;
Over the past decade, only three states have executed any juvenile offenders: Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma. Those three states account for 18 of the 22 executions of juvenile offenders that have been carried out since 1976.
The constitutional question the court will be exploring in the Missouri case is whether the execution of juveniles has evolved into a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which states, Excessive bail shall not be required; nor excessive fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The court has been split over the issue of juvenile executions. In a case last fall, Stanford v. Kentucky, a dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, ''The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.'' He was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer that juvenile executions are a shameful practice. However, the other five justices disagreed.
Activists refuse to give up hope that a majority of the court will finally agree.
Thankfully, momentum against this practice is building, said Roberts at the Virginia hearing. The time has come to end the odious use of the death penalty against children The evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society demand no less.
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