The Austin Chronicle

Juvenile Offenders

Getting Off Death Row in Texas

By Jordan Smith, July 15, 2005, Arts

Texas has executed 13 juvenile offenders in the modern era of the death penalty, far outpacing any other state, or any other country, where the practice of executing juveniles is legal. (Only Iran comes close to Texas' count; since 1990, the country has executed eight juvenile offenders, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.) The practice has long been challenged as violating the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Because adolescents are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, opponents have argued, it is impossible to assign to a juvenile the same moral culpability for a crime that one would assign to an adult – a fact that the law generally recognizes in other areas. For example, law forbids juveniles to vote, join the military, or purchase alcohol. Nonetheless, the practice of executing juveniles has repeatedly been upheld, as recently as 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of executing 16- and 17-year-olds.

On March 1, however, in a 5-4 ruling the Supremes reversed that decision, opining (in a case styled Roper v. Simmons) that "the differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty despite insufficient culpability," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offender's objective immaturity, vulnerabilty, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death."

The Court's decision means that 28 juvenile offenders will be removed from Texas' death row, their sentences commuted to life in prison. Still, on June 22, Gov. Rick Perry made it clear that he was not ordering the commutations by choice – suggesting that, in the absence of a Supreme Court mandate, he would've been more than satisfied to maintain the status quo. "While these individuals were convicted by juries of brutal murders and sentenced to die for their heinous crimes, I have no choice but to commute these sentences to life in prison as a result of the Supreme Court ruling," he said.

Also in The Austin Chronicle:

In Our Names, May 31, 2002

A Young Man on Death Row and Song of Life on Death Row, Jan. 10, 2003

Why Is Doil Lane Still on Death Row? Oct. 17, 2003

No Mercy, Aug. 20, 2004

No More Juvie Executions, March 11, 2005

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