Among other crucial matters this session, the US Supreme Court is expected to determine the legality of executing juvenile offenders with its decision in the Roper v. Simmons case.
Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, seven states have executed a combined twenty-two juvenile offenders nationwide. In recent years, however, the juvenile death penalty has met growing resistance, and polls consistently show that roughly 70 percent of the US population opposes the practice.
Internationally, juvenile executions are even more reviled. According to Amnesty International, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only other countries in the world that still sanction the execution of juvenile offenders. Moreover, the practice directly violates numerous international human rights agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every member of the UN General Assembly except for the United States and Somalia.
The US Supreme Court last reviewed the issue in 1989, when its decision in Stanford v. Kentucky set the minimum eligibility age for the death penalty at 16. But since then, eight states have established a minimum age of 18–raising the total number of states that ban juvenile executions to thirty-one; the District of Columbia, the federal government, and the US military also use 18 as the minimum age.
In October 2002 four Supreme Court Justices expressed their opposition to executing juvenile offenders in a dissent with the majority over the taking of a case that would have allowed them to review the issue. “The practice of executing [juvenile] offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the four. “We should put an end to this shameful practice.” However, at least one more vote is needed for a decision in favor of Christopher Simmons, the juvenile offender whose case made its way to the High Court after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile death penalty violates the US Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In anticipation of the Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, The Nation asked four people deeply involved in the fight against juvenile executions in the United States to share their thoughts on the issue. Those four people are Nanon Williams, a writer and death-row inmate in Texas, convicted and sentenced for a crime committed when he was 17 years old; Bill Pelke, a retired steelworker whose grandmother was murdered in Indiana in 1985 by a 15-year-old girl who later received a death sentence; Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; and Steve Presson, an Oklahoma lawyer who represented both Sean Sellers and Scott Hain, juvenile offenders who were executed in 1999 and 2003, respectively.
Although statistics and DNA data have been crucial in the efforts to abolish the juvenile death penalty, the personal side of an issue like this can sometimes be more illuminating. Do any particular experiences stand out in your mind that highlight the urgent need for reform?
: Having stood by as numerous people I knew personally were executed, I have many experiences that stand out in my mind. I often think about Napoleon Beazley. He and I both knew that when we entered the death house as juvenile offenders, there was no room left for the boys within us. Napoleon knew that he woke up every day in a place where men were mysteriously hung in their cells after searches by guards, where other prisoners killed each other, where guards and prisoners alike endured and gave beatings, and where chaos ruled every moment. Yet Napoleon, who confessed his guilt, was a perfect prisoner with extraordinary strength. He could smile and light up the room, say something to make one pause and think, and even shed a tear around men who wore faces of stone to hide their own fear. Napoleon helped men much older than he to reach their own potential, yet he was killed and couldn’t reach his own. When I spoke to Napoleon’s little brother moments before they took Napoleon to the execution gurney, I realized his brother became another victim. I saw his anger, his hurt and his pain so bare and so raw. I wonder what he will become. I saw Napoleon’s mother and father, and I saw more victims. I saw a cycle that would create more and more victims regardless of innocence or guilt. We could stop this but we haven’t.
: Paula Cooper, a 15-year-old girl, was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of my grandmother. [Her sentence was later commuted to 60 years in prison, in large part due to Pelke’s efforts to prevent her execution.] The idea that executing this girl would have brought justice, healing or even closure to our family is absurd. And the family members of the condemned are often forgotten. In the courtroom after the trial, I saw the tears and heard the groans of Paula Cooper’s grandfather. To me, it is barbarity to make someone go through the process of watching the state execute his granddaughter. I know my grandmother would have been opposed to that; she would have had love and compassion for him.
: One person who stands out is Ryan Matthews. This past fall, Ryan was freed from death row in Louisiana, where he had spent five years. He was arrested and tried for capital murder just after he turned 17 and was subsequently sentenced to death. Witnesses said they saw the perpetrator of the crime wearing a ski mask, and prosecutors said the mask belonged to Ryan. But this year, DNA testing found that evidence taken from the mask matched another man–who was already serving time for another killing. Had it not been for DNA technology, Ryan eventually would have been executed. And yet, in a vast majority of these death-penalty cases, whether they involve juvenile offenders or not, there is no DNA evidence. It makes you wonder how many other wrongful convictions are out there.
: I represented the nation’s only 16-year-old offender who was executed for his crimes in the “modern era” of capital punishment. I also represented a 17-year-old offender who was executed in 2003, and may end up being the last juvenile offender executed in the United States. At the time of their executions, neither of these boys were anything like the kids they were when their crimes were committed. They had both grown up and matured. One had a serious mental illness that was not discovered until after trial. The other grew up in complete poverty and an environment of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Since Stanford, eight states have passed legislation establishing 18 as the minimum eligibility age for the death penalty. During that same time period, no states have lowered the minimum age or set a new age any lower than 18. How do you account for this seemingly positive trend?
: I know about the trend and that in the past fifteen years the legislative consensus throughout the country has been to set a minimum age for capital punishment at 18. But from what I see, in the South the death penalty is still widely popular, whether it’s for a child, mentally retarded person or whatever. And sadly, many things in this country are based on what is popular, not what is right. The death penalty has become a stage for aspiring politicians. Look at George W. Bush: He’s presided over more executions and killed more kids on death row than anyone–and it certainly hasn’t hurt him.
: The movement away from juvenile executions is an echo of the international community–which for years has held the position that the juvenile death penalty is a violation of human rights. People in the United States have begun to realize that if someone is not old enough to vote, sign legal contracts or buy alcohol, he or she is too young to be sentenced to death.
: The public has become increasingly aware that children are different from adults. We once thought that a person’s brain is fully developed by the age of 14. Now we know that it continues to undergo development up to, and perhaps beyond, the age of 21. So the public has recognized that adolescents, by their nature, are less mature than adults, and that the impulsiveness and poor judgment of youth are mitigating factors that should exempt teenagers from the ultimate punishment.
: Those states that established the age at 18 were putting into statutory place what their practice had been, and what their sense of morality was. With Stanford seeming to give a green light to states to execute 16- and 17-year-olds, the seven states that raised or clarified their minimum age did so to repudiate Stanford, and perhaps to tell the rest of the country that executing children is outrageous.
nti-death penalty activists often frame the debate over juvenile executions broadly, focusing not just on the minimum age but also on a number of other socioeconomic factors. Do you think the juvenile death-penalty issue speaks to more extensive social problems?
: Yes. In Texas the last six juvenile offenders executed were people of color. Our judicial system is racist and discriminatory. Black men make up almost 50 percent of America’s prison population. Is that because of a cycle of violence or racism? The answer is both. With so many black men incarcerated, many black children and other young people of color grow up poor and in single-parent households. And those social hurdles are showcased in our courtrooms. Rich people don’t get the death penalty. Justice is about how much a person can afford! That’s why so many people of color are in America’s prisons and being executed, especially kids.
: The juvenile death penalty is a sign that we have given up on our young people. It highlights the fact that our system operates with the philosophy that we must react to violence with more violence. And it also reflects a broader set of problems: It highlights the fact that we have a legal system that is discriminatory with regard to race and class, a system in which there is justice only for some.
: States are increasing spending on prison systems even as they cut spending on public education. Moreover, public education spending is uneven; just look at the amount of money spent per child in affluent school districts compared with the amount spent in less affluent ones. At the same time, the kids who fail–who we fail–in poorer school districts are more likely to end up somewhere in the criminal justice system, be it on parole or probation, incarcerated or even on death row. So there is a link between how we support our children in their formative years and what ends up happening to them later. The cycle of violence begins with the onset of poverty, and economic and educational deprivation.
: I believe the juvenile death penalty, especially in the South, speaks to society’s knee-jerk reaction to violent crime and desire to extract revenge. Moreover, it speaks to society’s schizophrenic attitude toward juveniles: We enact more and more legal protections for them–like limiting driving privileges, enforcing anti-tobacco legislation and making parents criminally liable for their children’s truancy–but at the same time, when it comes to violent crime, we hold juveniles accountable as adults.
What do you think Roper v. Simmons means for the future of the anti-death penalty movement?
: If the Supreme Court rules against the execution of juvenile offenders, the problem with the death penalty itself will largely remain. Poor people will still have poor representation. Blacks will still get executed at a higher rate than whites. Prosecutors and judges will still hold ex parte meetings to decide who will face the death penalty. And how many will be executed? How many more families will be a part of the cycle? How many more innocent people will be killed? One can hope a victory in Roper v. Simmons would put a spark into the anti-death penalty movement. I guess time will tell. But during that time executions will still proceed. In fact, one will soon happen yet again right here in Texas.
: When I became convinced that executing juveniles was wrong, it was not that big of a step to conclude that executing anyone was wrong. If the Supreme Court makes the correct ruling in Roper v. Simmons, I think the American public will eventually make the same step I made. I think when people really look at this issue and study it, they will come to believe that as a civilized society we can do better than killing our children. But if we cannot convince the Supreme Court and the American people that the juvenile death penalty is wrong, then the abolition movement is in deep trouble.
: A victory in this case would signify the Supreme Court’s acknowledgment that the American public does not want the death penalty applied broadly. The public doesn’t want it applied for people with mental retardation, doesn’t want it applied for adolescent offenders. So I think we’re seeing a scaling back of the death penalty in this country. Hopefully this will continue with the Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons.
: It is sad that the Supreme Court did not take up this issue until Missouri’s highest court based its decision in Simmons’s case on the US Constitution. It is sad because at the time Scott Hain was executed by the state of Oklahoma in 2003, we had essentially the same data and arguments Simmons has, but the Supreme Court turned away our challenge and allowed Hain to be killed. If the Supreme Court rules in Simmons’s favor, it would only remove a very small segment of offenders from death eligibility. But it would be another step on the road toward abolition. If the Supreme Court rules against Simmons, it would be a signal that the Court very much favors capital punishment, wishes to ignore the social trends and the science that favor Simmons’s position and wants to send a message to the states that they are free to execute almost anyone they wish. That would be a setback to the abolition movement.