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U.S. Is Urged to Quit Executing Youth Offenders

Crime: In plea, Amnesty International says the nation is one of few left to allow such action.

September 26, 2002|ARIANNE ARYANPUR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Glen McGinnis' mother was a crack addict and prostitute who worked out of the family's apartment in Texas. As a child, he was brutally beaten, burned and sexually abused.

At age 17, McGinnis robbed and fatally shot a store clerk and was sentenced to die. After a decade on death row, he was executed by lethal injection two years ago.

McGinnis' case and those of juvenile offenders like him were cited at a news conference Wednesday by Amnesty International USA, which released two reports urging the United States--one of the few remaining countries in the world that executes juvenile offenders--to end the practice altogether.

"Our law says that a person under 18 is not mature enough to vote, not mature enough to serve on a jury, not mature enough to buy beer and wine, not mature enough to serve in many jobs, not mature enough to occupy most government positions, but is mature enough to be executed in some states," said William F. Schulz, the group's executive director. "Where is the logic in that?"

The report, which was released a day after a U.S. district judge in Vermont ruled the federal death penalty unconstitutional, comes at a time of recent judicial action and growing national opposition to the death penalty.

Last month, three Supreme Court justices called for the high court to review the constitutionality of executing juvenile offenders.

And despite public concern about rising youth crime rates, a Gallup Poll in May indicated that 69% of Americans oppose capital punishment for juveniles, while 26% support it. That is nearly a reversal of a similar Gallup Poll in 1994, in which 61% supported juvenile execution and 30% opposed it.

Of the 38 states that still have the death penalty in the United States, 22 execute juvenile offenders age 17 or younger, officials said.

"In Louisiana, a person under 18 isn't permitted to witness an execution, but is permitted to be executed," Schulz said.

Supporters of capital punishment contend that, even in cases where the offender is a minor, the death penalty may be warranted. They say attorneys often use a defendant's youth or--as in McGinnis' case--cite a horrendous childhood as reasons for leniency.

But Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author who spoke at Wednesday's news conference, said scientific data about the physiological development of juveniles calls into question their ability to fully control their actions. Even by the most conservative estimates, the brain's frontal lobe--which controls impulses, moderates emotions and influences decision-making--may not reach maturity by age 18, said Goldberg, a professor at New York University's Medical Center.

One of the reports released Wednesday, titled "Indecent and Internationally Illegal: The Death Penalty Against Child Offenders," deals specifically with capital punishment of juvenile offenders in the United States and draws parallels to the June Supreme Court decision that abolished the death penalty for the mentally retarded. Amnesty said it hopes that the Atkins vs. Virginia ruling, in which the Supreme Court cited "evolving standards of decency," may have an effect on future court decisions regarding juvenile executions.

The second report, "Children and the Death Penalty: Executions Worldwide Since 1990," explores what Amnesty called the growing diplomatic isolation of the U.S. on the issue of juvenile offenders.

In the last two years, the only countries known to have executed convicts who committed crimes while they were under age 18 are Iran, Pakistan and Congo, Amnesty said.

Pakistan, however, recently commuted the sentences of its juvenile offenders on death row, and Congo has placed a moratorium on such executions, Schulz said.

"So now it's just the U.S. and so-called axis-of-evil member Iran alone in the executioner's corner," Schulz said, referring to President Bush's reference in January to Iran, North Korea and Iraq as part of an "axis of evil."

"This is not good company for the United States to keep when it comes to being a model of respect for human rights," Schulz said.

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