by Steve Chapman
Wiseman and Douglas Christopher Thomas were teenage lovers when they shot her parents to death in 1990. Jessica, age 14 at the time, was convicted and sent to a juvenile detention center. When she turned 21, she was released.
Her boyfriend, who was 17 when the murders took place, went to an adult prison. Last week, he, too, was allowed to leave -- in a hearse. While his confederate was walking free, Thomas was put to death by the state of Virginia.
In this country, 16- and 17-year-olds are regarded as too immature to be allowed to vote, buy a drink, sign a contract or enlist in the military without parental consent. But 23 states have decreed that someone under the age of 18 who commits murder can be eligible for society's ultimate punishment.
Things could be worse, and they used to be. The only reason kids 15 and under are off-limits to the hangman is because the Supreme Court says that executing them would amount to "cruel and unusual punishment." And cruel and unusual punishments, through some gross lapse in judgment by the founding fathers, are banned by the 8th Amendment.
Executing older youngsters may be cruel, but it's becoming quite usual. Thomas was not the sole juvenile offender dispatched last week, or even the only one in Virginia: Steve Roach, who shotgunned an elderly woman to death six years ago, got his lethal injection just three days after Thomas.
More are on the way. Texas, which has averaged nearly one execution every month since it resumed the enthusiastic practice of capital punishment in 1982, has set Jan. 25 as its day to rid the world of Glen Charles McGinnis, who was 17 when he murdered a laundry clerk. Across the country, another 70 people are on death row for crimes they committed before they reached the age of majority.
There is no sugar-coating what McGinnis, Roach and Thomas did, and no one seriously claims they were wrongly convicted. But even among adult killers, the death penalty is the exception, not the rule. The question is why we think the most draconian punishment in our criminal justice arsenal should be applied to people who in almost any other context would not be treated as adults.
Minors, as we all know, generally lack the maturity, judgment, experience, capacity for self-control and long-run perspective that we expect of grown-ups. That's why we try to keep them under close adult supervision. So you would think we would regard their natural shortcomings as a serious mitigating factor when they commit terrible crimes -- serious enough to spare them the most extreme sanction, at least.
The rest of the world does. During the 1990s, only five other countries are known to have put juveniles to death, and none of them have done so since 1997. Those countries are Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. How's that for keeping good company?
"Internationally, every other country has abandoned killing juvenile offenders," says Ohio Northern University law professor Victor Streib. "We're the only ones left."
That's right: Even China, which runs the world's busiest execution industry, has renounced capital punishment for those under 18. We're not the only country in the world with juvenile killers, but we're alone in putting them to death. As things now stand, the United States has the rare distinction of taking a harder line than the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Grown-ups may be held fully accountable for what they do, but in the case of adolescents, it's hard to say that they ought to be able to overcome any misfortunes that may have warped their personalities. McGinnis, notes U.S. News & World Report, was the son of a prostitute who was addicted to crack. He endured a stepfather who raped him, beat him with a baseball bat and burned him with hot grease. By age 11, he had dropped out of school and run away from home. Not many 17-year-olds with such a horrific background are going to end up in the National Honor Society.
Nor do we have to execute juvenile murderers merely to protect ourselves. For criminals who show no prospect of ever reforming, there is always the option of life imprisonment with no chance of parole. That punishment prevents unrepentant killers from preying on society again, but without the gratuitous cruelty of putting them to death.
We could apply the same logic to adult offenders, though, and that's not something many of us are willing to do. Americans firmly support capital punishment and strongly prefer not to think too much about whether it truly serves any purpose. In the case of executing kids, not thinking makes a lot of sense.
January 16, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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