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Death Penalty Debate : How to Treat Youngsters Who Murder

November 03, 1985|BARRY SIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — Ronald Ward was sitting in his choral music class here at West Junior High School when a messenger summoned him to the principal's office.

He had been there before, guilty of skipping school and disobeying teachers' orders, but the problem the morning of April 18 was different. Two carloads of police detectives wanted to see him. They said he had brutally murdered two elderly women and a 12-year-old boy.

Late on the evening of Sept. 19, a jury agreed. The jurors then expressed a desire to push on with the sentencing portion of their task. They began deliberating at 20 minutes past midnight and took half an hour to decide: The defendant should die.

In this fashion, Ward, 15 when arrested and convicted, became the youngest prisoner on Death Row in the country.

Heated Arguments

All manner of heated arguments can be heard here for why Ward drew the death penalty.

Some think it relevant that Ward is black, the three murder victims and 12 jurors white. Some find it worth mentioning that the judge and prosecutor excluded from the jury all who expressed reservations about the death penalty.

Others see the matter in less complicated terms. They believe citizens in this northeast corner of Arkansas, across the Mississippi River from Tennessee, simply like capital punishment a good deal better than they do savage murders.

What mostly everyone can agree upon is that sentencing a boy of 15 to death is a hard business.

Ward sobbed and trembled the night the verdict came down. Most of the jurors cried during their deliberations. One had to be carried down the courthouse stairs afterward. The judge said that upholding the jury's sentence "was the hardest thing I have ever done as a lawyer." The jury foreman said, "I never want to serve on a jury again."

'We Had No Choice'

However, the foreman, Weldon Roberts, a civilian technician with the Air National Guard, also said: "From the evidence we heard, we had no choice. I wish we had. But we didn't."

In just such terms a troubling dilemma presents itself in courtrooms across the country.

As states return to use of the death penalty and display increased willingness to process juveniles through the adult criminal justice system, they must decide how to handle youngsters who perform monstrous acts.

Thirty-five prisoners sit on Death Rows in 16 states for crimes committed when under the age of 18, according to Victor L. Streib, a law professor and juvenile justice specialist at Cleveland State University. Three others besides Ward arrived there when 15. The list shrank by one last month when Texas executed Charles Rumbaugh for a murder he committed when 17.

In this century, more than 100 juveniles have been executed before their 18th birthday. The youngest and latest, Streib said, was George Junius Stinney Jr., who went to the South Carolina electric chair in 1944 at age 14.

Most of the young convicts' stories, full of parents who ran off and unguided lives on the streets, evoke pity. Most of their deeds, full of rapes and beatings and murders, evoke horror.

So it is little surprise that the matter of Ron Ward has brought to this Arkansas town all sorts of emotions, but few answers.

"The stinker is, these are not men and not boys," said Joseph B. Brown Jr., Ward's attorney. "The hardest thing in this case was that my client's a child and really had no controlling parents. The grandmother who raised him is senile, bless her soul. People oppose abortion and sex education, make no provision to deal with the resulting parentless children; then when these children go ahead and do what can be expected, people want to kill them."

Particularly Brutal Crime

Ward, though, stands convicted of a particularly brutal crime.

The jury concluded that he took a butcher knife to two elderly sisters and their great-grandnephew, a 12-year-old boy. Audrey A. Townsend, 72, was stabbed eight times and raped. Lois Townsend Jarvis, 75, was stabbed six times. Christopher Simmons, 12, a member of the local boys club and a carrier for the town newspaper, was stabbed five times. Ward's fingerprints were everywhere in the old ladies' simple four-room house.

David Burnett, the circuit judge who presided at the trial, said: "The tragedy in the Ronald Ward story is he's a victim of a society that allowed him to live in a situation where he had no guidance or control. But Attila the Hun probably had unfortunate circumstances, too. One purpose of our system is to protect and exact retribution."

Not all states have settled on that answer.

While Ward's trial was beginning here, so was another one near Beloit, Wis. Two boys, 14 and 12, and a girl, 11, were charged with bludgeoning and stabbing to death a 9-year-old playmate, in part because he would not share his bike.

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