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Death Sentence Commuted for Ky. Man Who Killed at 17

As debate persists over executing juvenile offenders, a governor resolves one key case.

June 22, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

The governor of Kentucky has commuted the death sentence of a man at the center of the controversy over whether it is appropriate to execute a person for a crime committed as a juvenile.

Gov. Paul E. Patton announced that he will not sign a death warrant for Kevin N. Stanford, 39, who has been on death row for more than 20 years for a rape and murder he committed when he was 17.

Stanford's case has been argued before the U.S. Supreme Court twice and both times a divided court ruled that his execution should be permitted. Patton ultimately decided it should not be.

The Democratic governor, whose term ends in December, was asked at a Frankfort, Ky., news conference last week whether he planned to commute any death sentences. The governor responded: "Kevin Stanford.... That is a case, in my opinion, where the justice system perpetuated an injustice."

Patton previously had said he opposed executions of juveniles, though he generally favors capital punishment and has permitted two executions since becoming governor in 1995.

Kentucky Atty. Gen. Albert B. Chandler III requested the death warrant in November, after Stanford's last appeal was spurned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that ruling, issued Oct. 21, four dissenting justices signed a statement declaring that executing individuals for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18 is a "shameful practice" that is "a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer issued the statement while dissenting from the court's denial of Stanford's habeas corpus petition, challenging the constitutionality of his sentence.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute individuals who committed murder when they were under 16. But the following year, in Stanford's case, the court declined to extend that ruling to persons who were 16 or 17. Writing for a 5-4 majority in 1989, Justice Antonin Scalia said that there was no national consensus against those executions.

Sixteen of the 38 states that have capital punishment, including California, as well as the federal government, have a minimum age of 18. Several other states are considering elevating the minimum age, though such legislation recently failed in Kentucky.

Last year, new focus on the juvenile execution controversy followed the Justice Department's selection of Virginia as the first state to prosecute Lee Boyd Malvo, one of two suspects in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper slayings. Virginia can seek the death penalty against Malvo -- who was 17 at the time of the killings -- something that is forbidden in Maryland, where murder charges were also filed against him.

Since Colonial days, approximately 365 people have been executed in the U.S. for crimes committed as juveniles, with 22 of those since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to reinstitute the death penalty after a four-year hiatus. All but one occurred in Southern or Southwestern states, with Texas having the most at 13. There are 82 individuals on death rows around the country for murders committed when they were under 18 -- about 2% of those under sentence of death in the U.S. A third -- 28 -- are in Texas.

The only nations besides the U.S. that allow juvenile executions are Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan barred them in 2000.

The American Bar Assn. and a variety of religious and human rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, condemn the practice.

Opponents cite scientific studies showing that juveniles do not have the same mental development or maturity as adults and that as a consequence, people under 18 are not permitted to vote, drink or serve on juries.

Recent polling data show that nearly 80% of Kentucky residents think a life sentence is the most appropriate punishment for a juvenile murderer, a point Stanford's supporters noted.

Stanford grew up in a poor neighborhood in Louisville. By age 12, he was a drug addict and, according to a Kentucky Supreme Court decision, had committed arson, burglary and assault by the time he was 17.

In January 1981, he and two other teens robbed a gas station where night attendant Baerbel Poore, 20, worked to support her infant daughter.

Stanford and David Buchanan raped Poore in a service station bathroom while Troy Johnson waited outside. Then, Stanford drove Poore into the woods and shot her twice in the head. The robbery netted $143.07 in cash, 300 cartons of cigarettes and a gas can.

Stanford was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1982. A series of unsuccessful appeals ensued.

During the last two years, new appellate lawyers Margaret O'Donnell and Gail Robinson focused on persuading the governor to commute the death sentence, something Patton can do as an act of mercy.

Several state legislators and religious groups led by the Kentucky Catholic Conference supported the clemency bid.

Chandler vigorously opposed clemency, citing the heinous nature of the crime and the anguish suffered by Poore's family.

Poore's sister, Mona Mills, expressed outrage at the governor's decision. "Governor Patton is perverted, corrupt and as evil as Kevin Stanford," Mills told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Patton's action was hailed by Amnesty International's U.S. branch. "It's sadly ironic that the individual whose case ensured that prosecutors could seek the death penalty for juvenile offenders was one of the few ultimately granted clemency," said spokeswoman Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn.

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