Supreme Court Strikes Down Juvenile Executions

By: Althea Paul
By: Althea Paul

March 1, 2005

In a narrow 5-4 decision the Supreme Court said the execution of juvenile offenders was unconstitutionally cruel.

"Its conclusion was the death penalty now is contrary to the evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," said UVa law professor, Richard Bonnie.

This decision throws out the death sentences of 72 juvenile murderers currently on death row across the country. It's a ruling some say should have happened a long time ago.

"Kids are different. They're not adults. We recognize this when it comes to boating, when it comes to driving, when it comes to talking on cell phones while you're driving, etcetera. But when it comes to a heinous crime, we all of a sudden say you're no longer a juvenile, you're an adult," said executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Jack Payden-Travers.

Nineteen states currently allow the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes under 18. Since 1973, three juvenile offenders have been executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Some however say age should not matter at all.

Stanley Rosenbluth, a member of the organization Virginians United Against Crime, said "I don't agree with the ruling, for the simple reason that we don't know for sure that as a teen, they don't know the difference from right and wrong."

Experts say it's expected that generally, younger people get more leniency than adults, but proponents argue that's not necessarily the case, depending on the teen's maturity.

While those in favor of the ruling may also say that an execution also plays a role in revenge, families of victims say it's not about retribution, but justice.

Virginia does have one juvenile offender on death row, Shermaine Johnson, behind bars for rape and murder.

This Supreme Court decision should allow his sentence to be changed to life without parole.

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