[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----USA., MD., N.Y.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Tue Mar 8 16:52:42 CST 2005
Disorder in the court's thinking
Proclaiming their mastery of moral evolution, America's unelected rulers
have decreed that the same juveniles who enjoy the constitutional right to
kill their unborn have acquired the constitutional right to avoid
execution when they kill the already born.
The reasoning of the bare Supreme Court majority in Roper vs. Simmons is
clearly specious, but the understandable reaction of some conservatives
The facts: Christopher Simmons, age 17, told 2 friends that he planned to
commit murder by tying up a victim and throwing that victim off a bridge.
Simmons asked them to join his entertainment, which, he assured them, they
could "get away with" because they were minors. He bragged about the crime
after drowning Shirley Crook -- who left behind a devastated husband and
daughter -- according to plan.
Tried as an adult, Simmons was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death,
as permitted by the laws of Missouri. The jury properly concluded, as the
Supreme Court's majority noted, that Simmons' crime "involved depravity of
mind and was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman."
The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and [not or, please note] unusual
punishments." In its previous most recent decision dealing with the use of
capital punishment for juveniles, the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the
Constitution does not proscribe execution of offenders who are 16 or 17
when they commit their crimes.
But last week, having cogitated on America's "evolving standards of
decency," the court's four liberals and one swing justice ignored that
precedent and declared capital punishment to be both cruel and unusual for
those under 18.
But a punishment permitted by 20 states can hardly be unusual. Moreover,
from 1642 to 1986, 2 % of death penalty recipients in America were
executed for crimes committed while they were under 18 -- something that
the 1989 court conceded was consistent with the Eighth Amendment.
But between 1990 and 2003, 3.4 % of death sentences were given in under-18
cases. So juvenile execution is not unusual in a constitutional sense and
cannot, by definition, be unconstitutional (although several
nonconstitutional arguments support its abolition).
Furthermore, the majority admits the plausibility of the argument that
occasionally a "juvenile offender has sufficient psychological maturity,
and at the same time demonstrates sufficient depravity, to merit a
sentence of death."
Jurors, who hear arguments for and against such conclusions, are
manifestly well-positioned to satisfy the court's own "insistence on
Finally, the court's majority has struck down abortion statutes that do
not permit mature juveniles to undergo abortions without parental
And as Justice Antonin Scalia observed, whether "to obtain an abortion is
surely a much more complex decision for a young person than whether to
kill an innocent person in cold blood."
The court's decision is, in short, inconsistent with both settled American
law and common sense. Yet some critics have overreacted.
For example, they are outraged that the court's majority drew attention to
the fact that the "civilized nations of the world are in virtual
unanimity" against juvenile execution. But the justices acknowledged that
this reality is not controlling in American courts. And didn't our own
Founders declare their "decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind"?
Similarly, Scalia's dissent in Simmons, in most respects a cogent
refutation of the majority's plainly nonlegal expression of justices'
personal moral preferences, errs in his insistence on "the original
meaning" of "cruel and unusual." What those words meant in 1789 might well
be different from our contemporary understanding.
In fact, by his own showing, when the amendment was adopted in 1791, "the
death penalty could theoretically be imposed for the crime of a
But Scalia is surely correct that the majority's whims cannot be "a
predictable basis for law -- much less a democratic one." Americans
deserve better from our highest judicial tribunal.
* * *
By middle adolescence (age 14-15) young people develop abilities similar
to adults in reasoning about moral dilemmas, understanding social rules
-- American Psychological Association, amicus brief filed in Hodgson vs.
(source: Opinion, Fort Worth Star-Telegram - Don Erler is president of
General Building Maintenance)
Court Ruling Encourages Death Row Opponents
In 1988, the U. S. Supreme Court left it up to states whether 16- and
17-year-olds could be given the death penalty. But last week, the court
reversed itself in a 5-4 decision that nullifies death sentences given to
offenders who committed capital crimes while under the age of 18.
The fact that the justices reversed themselves heartened death penalty
opponents who hope that the court will eventually examine the role race
plays in capital murder cases, whether it's the suspect or the victim.
"They didn't base this decision at all on race, they didn't add up the
number of minorities or anything like that, but that's who it was
disproportionately affecting," says Richard C. Dieter, executive director
of the Death Penalty Information Center. "So, I think the bigger issue on
race is that the Supreme Court is, I think, saying that the door is still
open for reconsidering things that its decided in the past.'"
According to the center, there were 29 Blacks, 26 Whites, 16 Latinos and
one Asian among juvenile offenders on death row when the court ruled in
the Missouri 1st-degree murder case, Roper v. Simmons, that the execution
of juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. Two-thirds of the youth
offenders are people of color whose lives have now been spared. The court
said the ruling was also because of growing international sentiments
against the execution of juveniles. In the world community, the U. S.
stands alone in sanctioning the death of juvenile offenders.
Blacks making up only 12 % of the nation's population but 42 % of death
row (1,444). By contrast, Whites constitute 71 % of the U.S. population
but only 46 % (1,576) of death row inmates.
In the Missouri case, 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.
After the Circuit Court of Jefferson City convicted him and sentenced him
to death, Missouri's Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to overturn his death
sentence because of his age. They ruled 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. The Supreme Court
upheld that ruling.
"When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture
of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his
life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own
humanity," writes Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
"While drawing the line at 18 is subject to the objections always raised
against categorical rules, that is the point where society draws the line
for many purposes between childhood and adulthood and the age at which the
line for death eligibility ought to rest."
People under 18 cannot vote and cannot serve in the armed services without
their parents' permission. They cannot purchase liquor, and, ironically in
the state of Louisiana, they cannot witness an execution unless they are
the one being put to death.
Although Black and Brown juveniles represent 21 % of the 16- to 17
year-olds in America, they represent more than triple that proportion (66
%) of all death row inmates sentenced as juveniles.
Death penalty opponents say that race of the victim is also a factor. For
example, of the 72 juvenile offenders on death row, 71 % (65) of their
victims were White. 9 % were Black, 11 % were Latino and 7 % were Asian.
"If you kill a White person, you're much more likely to get the death
penalty than if you kill a minority or a Black person. Over 90 % of the
studies have come to the same conclusion. So it's a very strong core of
evidence," says Deiter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Studies
have been done in virtually every death penalty state around the country
and they all keep coming to the same conclusion. So there's a very
powerful body of scientific knowledge that they can use now."
At the time of high court's ruling, 19 states had no death penalty for
juveniles: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas,
Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,
Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington and Wyoming.
Ted Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund, recalls being deeply troubled when the high court ruled
5-4 against an LDF case in 1987 that raised the issue of racial
discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty( Mcklesky v. Kemp.)
In this Georgia murder case, the LDF argued that prosecutors sought the
death penalty in 70 % of the cases involving Black defendants and White
victims. Yet, they sought the death penalty 15 % of the time when the
defendant was Black and the victims was also African-American.
Overall, 81 % of the prisoners on death row since 1976 had victims that
"There we put before the Supreme Court all of the remnants of racial
discrimination and the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia, not
only with respect to the race of the defendant, but also the race of the
victim," Shaw recalls. "And the court basically said, 'Even if we accept
your evidence at face value, you're asking us to do more than we're
willing to do. It would require uprooting an entire criminal justice
Death Penalty decisions have taken several twists and turns over the
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 and therefore constituted cruel and unusual
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.
In 1988, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 (Thompson v. Oklahoma), to strike
down the juvenile death penalty for youth at the age of 16. In another 5-4
decision in 1989, (Stanford v. Kentucky) the court said states could
impose the death penalty on offenders ages 16 and 17.
Shaw says it would be a stretch to predict a near future reversal of
McClesky v. Kemp, the 1987 race and the death penalty case.
"I refuse to ever be hopeless because when you're hopeless, you might as
well lay down and die," he says.
William Shultz, director of Amnesty International U.S.A., which, for
nearly 2 years, has led a global campaign against the juvenile death
penalty, says a key to last week's win was that the U. S. had shamed
itself in the context of the world.
"The overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile
death penalty is not controlling here, but provides respected and
significant confirmation for the court's determination that the penalty is
disproportionate punishment for offenders under 18," Kennedy writes. "The
United States is the only country in the world that continues to give
official sanction to the juvenile penalty."
Agreeing with Kennedy were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth
Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Justices Sandra Day O'Conner, Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist and
Clarence Thomas dissented.
Shultz says opponents will continue to fight, focusing on race as well as
other issues of unfairness.
"We're going to have to keep fighting and this is not an easy fight," says
Shaw. "One thing you know is you won't always win. But if you don't fight,
you don't have a chance of winning. That's why I say we've got to keep
hanging in there and keep swinging."
Inmate Indicted in Strangulation on Md. Prison Bus
A 2-time convicted murderer who vowed at a court hearing that he would
kill again if he did not get psychiatric help was indicted yesterday in
Baltimore County on a first-degree murder charge in the strangling of a
fellow inmate last month on a prison bus.
Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty against Kevin G. Johns,
22, who is accused of killing Philip E. Parker Jr., 20, hours after Parker
testified on Johns's behalf at a Feb. 2 hearing in Hagerstown, Md.
The bus that carried both men and 33 other prisoners from Hagerstown
arrived at Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore at 4 the
following morning. Parker was dead, and Johns had bloodstains on his
shirt, according to accounts of the incident.
Parker's killing resulted in the swift firing of three correctional
officers who were on the bus, the suspension of another guard and the
reprimand of the bus driver. It also sparked a host of changes in prisoner
transportation policies, including requirements that security cameras be
installed on prison buses and other vehicles, that interior lights be kept
on at night and that commercial radios remain off.
Additionally, the commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction,
Frank C. Sizer Jr., has ordered a review of the prison system's
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and
Correctional Services, said he is not sure how an inmate could have
escaped from restraints to kill another prisoner on that bus.
"There may have been a problem with the restraints," Vernarelli said. "To
what extent they were restrained is part of the investigation."
Johns's public defender, Stephen Musselman, did not return calls yesterday
seeking comment on the indictment.
Johns, who was serving a 35-year sentence for killing a relative in 2002,
was sentenced to life in prison at the Hagerstown hearing for strangling
his 16-year-old cellmate last year.
Parker, who was assigned to the same Baltimore prison as Johns, was
serving 42 months for unarmed robbery. Parker had testified that Johns had
a bad temper and had repeatedly asked for psychological treatment.
Baltimore County prosecutor Ann Brobst, who is handling the death penalty
case, said the bus slaying occurred on Interstate 70 as the vehicle
traveled about four miles through the county on its way to Baltimore.
She declined to say how she knew that the killing took place in Baltimore
County. The bus traveled through four jurisdictions, including Howard
County and Baltimore.
"I can't discuss the evidence in the case," Brobst said.
She said the case is eligible for the death penalty under Maryland law
because Johns was serving a life sentence at the time of the murder. She
said the county's policy is to seek the death penalty in every case that
Michael Stark, spokesman for the Maryland-based Campaign to End the Death
Penalty, pointed out that Baltimore County is one of the most aggressive
death penalty jurisdictions. Of the eight people on Maryland's death row,
5 are from Baltimore County.
"This is a ridiculous gesture on behalf of prosecutors who are trying to
make themselves tough," he said.
(source: Washington Post)
Poll: Voters split on death penalty restoration
New York voters are almost evenly split on whether the state should put
the death penalty back on the books, but a majority prefer
life-without-parole sentences for murderers, a statewide poll reported
Tuesday. 46 % of voters told the Siena College Research Institute
pollsters the death penalty should not be re-instituted while 42 percent
said it should.
Asked what was the "more appropriate punishment for 1st-degree murderers,"
56 % opted for life without parole while 29 % favored death.
The poll comes out as the New York Legislature continues to wrestle with
the death penalty issue.
A death penalty law was restored in 1995 by the then-newly elected
Republican Gov. George Pataki and the Legislature, but it was effectively
declared unconstitutional by New York's highest court last year. Since
then, Pataki and the state Senate's Republican majority have pressed for a
new law, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has stalled the
effort with a series of public hearings. Silver has said he cannot promise
the Assembly will even vote on a death penalty bill this year.
While Pataki has argued that the death penalty is a crime deterrent, the
Siena poll found that New York voters aren't particularly concerned about
crime right now. Asked to identify the most pressing issue facing the
state, 24 % said improving education; 18 % said health care; and 14 % said
creating new jobs. Just 3 % of voters identified crime as the most
important issue facing the state.
The telephone poll by the Albany-area institute of 600 registered voters
was conducted Feb. 28-March 4 and has a sampling error margin of plus or
minus 4 percentage points.
(source: Associated Press)
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