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Execution of Teen-Age Killers Weighed : Florida: Two on Death Row now, and slaying of Briton has intensified the debate. The state's juvenile justice system is seen as outdated and inefficient.

October 08, 1993|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — The arrest of four young boys--including one only 13 years old--on first degree murder charges in the Sept. 14 killing of a British tourist may have mitigated damage to Florida's reputation as a vacationland, but it has added urgency to a statewide debate here about executing teen-age killers.

The Florida Supreme Court is now deciding the fate of one of two teen-agers already on Florida's Death Row for murder. In another murder case, the state is likely to seek the death penalty for a 14-year-old.

Now four boys from the small town of Monticello in north Florida may also be tried as adults in a capital case. If convicted, they could also be sentenced to die in the state's electric chair.

"This raises fascinating questions for society," said Victor L. Streib, a lawyer and professor of criminology. "Is a 13-year-old unchangeable and should never be released on the street again?

"I had been optimistic we'd passed the point of considering the death penalty for juveniles. But what adult punishment is appropriate for children who commit adult crimes?"

In the slaying of the British tourist, a grand jury will hear evidence that the four Monticello youths capped off a late-night joy ride in a stolen car by attempting to rob Gary Colley and his girlfriend. The couple had pulled off an interstate highway east of Tallahassee and fallen asleep. When Colley tried to flee in the couple's rental car, he was shot in the head.

The killing was the ninth of a foreign visitor to Florida in 11 months, and it touched off a worldwide blizzard of press criticism that has had state tourism officials scrambling. Tourism is Florida's biggest industry, bringing $31-billion worth of business a year.

But even as the state resumed its foreign advertising, and tourism chiefs hoped that the worst of Florida's image problems had passed, other state officials were bemoaning an outdated juvenile justice system that seems incapable of dealing with growing numbers of violent youths.

In Miami, for example, a 13-year-old boy shot and killed a man after he reportedly became angry when the man took an extra slice of pizza intended for a group of downtown homeless. Last week a grand jury indicted the boy, Cahffee Suarez, on a charge of first-degree murder.

The four boys accused of killing Colley have a collective rap sheet that is 100 charges long, according to reports. The 13-year-old had been arrested 15 times on more than 50 charges and has been held on unrelated auto theft charges since the day of the shooting.

One of the other boys charged is 14. The other two are 16. All are in custody.

Jefferson County Sheriff Ken Fortune, whose department investigated Colley's killing, said he hoped the slaying and the youths' long criminal records "will awaken the state and the nation's eyes to correct the juvenile problems that our society has allowed to get out of control."

In Florida, where juvenile arrests for murder are up 17% in the first six months of 1993 over the same period last year, the legislature is expected to use a special session next month to take up the problems posed by escalating violence among youths.

"We are still dealing with a 1950s approach to juveniles back when it was a 'Leave It to Beaver' kind of setting," said Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth.

But is any state ready to kill teen-agers who kill?

In a 1989 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court gave approval to the execution of those who kill at age 16. A year earlier the court blocked the death penalty from being carried out against a 15-year-old in Oklahoma, citing the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Although Florida is one of 18 states which place no age restrictions on those sentenced to death, Butterworth acknowledges that the state's Supreme Court is unlikely to allow the execution of anyone younger than 16.

"Society I don't think is out there to put children to death, no matter what the crime might be, and I don't think you'll see Florida or any other state being able to execute a young person," he said this week. "The courts will stop it."

At least two of the state's nine justices indicated that on Sept. 1, when they heard arguments in the case of Jerome Allen. Allen was 15 years old in December, 1990, when he and two friends fatally shot a 31-year-old man during a gas station robbery in Titusville. He was sentenced to death in October, 1991.

Prosecutor Kellie Nielan told the justices that Allen, despite having a below-average IQ of about 77, should die because he coldly ordered an accomplice to use a shotgun on their victim. But Justice Rosemary Barkett said: "There's absolutely nothing I'm aware of that would indicate the Florida Legislature ever contemplated the death penalty for juveniles."

Said Streib, who represented Allen before the state's high court: "I share the outrage about what (some juveniles) are doing; it's unforgivable. But we cannot react with Draconian adult punishment.

"I don't have an answer. But we should spend money and time looking for it. A start would be to take guns away and do something about the disintegrating schools and family."

Glenn Craig, the Brevard County assistant state attorney who prosecuted Allen, said he expected the state Supreme Court decision would either establish a so-called "bright line," a minimum age for criminals who can be executed, "or leave it on a case-by-case basis. And then we'll continue to wrestle with it."

In the last 20 years, seven who were age 17 at the time they committed murder have been executed in the United States. None was in Florida.

Researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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