Friday, March 25, 2005

The Juvenile DP: Another brick falls off the wall

Welcome to the 20th century, America! For years, the United States lagged far behind the civilized world as it continued to condone the execution of those who commit crimes as children. On March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court finally brought us into line with every other democracy in the world by banning this cruel torture. We finally leave the company of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Congo, Iran, and Nigeria, which are the only other countries that have executed child offenders in the last 15 years.

The court’s 5-4 decision is one that has been lauded around the country and around the world. Most of America’s mainstream newspapers recognized the wisdom in the decision.

It will certainly be a decision that is appreciated by an overwhelming majority of Americans. In a December, 2003 ABC News poll, only 21% of Americans polled supported execution of those who commit crimes as children. A study released in 2004
by Columbia University researchers indicated that death sentences for juveniles had dropped significantly since 1999.

Even George W. Bush, otherwise known as the Texecutioner amongst death penalty opponents, is not a strong supporter of the juvenile death penalty. “Federal law prohibits execution of those under 18 when the offense was committed, and I see no reason to change that statute," President Bush said in a forum hosted by the New Voters Project in October (as quoted by the Death Penalty Information Center).

And in perhaps the most telling moment of all, in December 2003, a Virginia jury sentenced teenager Lee Malvo to life without the possibility of parole for his role in the D.C. sniper murders. For weeks, Malvo and his accomplice, John Muhammad, terrorized the Washington area. Certainly, Malvo was the poster boy for the juvenile death penalty. In fact, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that Malvo’s first trial take place in Virginia because it had a death penalty for children while Maryland did not. Yet the jury sentenced him to life in a state that is just one of three that have executed child offenders in the last seven years.

Clearly, the American people have matured to the point of setting aside this barbaric practice.

And, yet, an examination of some opinion pieces, talkradio commentaries, and talking head cable shows might lead one to believe that the country is narrowly split over this issue. Those decrying the court’s decision included the Wall Street Journal editorial board; Cal Thomas, a Fox News commentator and syndicated columnist; George Will of the Washington Post and ABC News; and, of course, the four Supreme Court Injustices who voted against the decision- Injustice Thomas, Injustice O’Connor, Chief Injustice Rehnquist, and would-be Chief Injustice Scalia.

Maybe Scalia’s bishop should consider denying him communion.

In contrast to the public’s obvious disdain for the practice, the vehement support of the child death penalty by some in positions of influence in the media and the judiciary leads us to a chilling conclusion: There are extremists with their fingers on the buttons of power in this country.

Thomas, Will, and the Journal have created a Straw Man, which can be easily knocked down whenever a decision occurs with which they disagree. “Legislating from the bench.” “Judicial activism.” “Activist judges with lifetime appointments.” We’ve heard the old, tired arguments so many times that their columns practically write themselves.

What scares these opinion peddlers the most is that their precious system of capital punishment is crumbling at the foundations. There truly is an evolving standard of decency in this country, and it is a standard that is evolving toward the rejection of capital punishment. The end of juvenile executions, the end of the execution of the mentally retarded, moratoria in Illinois and Maryland, the continuing release of innocents from death rows around the country, and discussions on abolition in New York, Kansas, and New Mexico indicate clearly that the death penalty is heading toward its demise. Capital punishment, our odd institution, is walking the longest walk. We’re headed toward a time when our children and our children’s children will learn about capital punishment in our museums and not in our daily news.

Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul Stevens deserve credit for doing what is right and voting against the execution of children. They deserve the title of “Justice”.

2 Comments:

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