EXECUTING JUVENILES DEMEANS JUSTICE
By Alfred P. Carlton Jr., President,
American Bar Association
Toronto Patterson is scheduled for execution Wednesday in Huntsville. He was
sentenced to death for the murders of three of his cousins in 1995 in Dallas,
when he was 17 years old.
While I do not excuse the crime or question the suffering it caused the
victims, their family or their friends, I do know that we must stop executing
people for crimes committed as children. I urge the Texas Board of Pardons and
Paroles to commute Toronto’s sentence to life in prison.
As a parent and as a lawyer, I know that there are fundamental differences
between the teenagers and adults I observe daily, differences that have been
documented scientifically by such organizations as the American Psychiatric
Association, the National Mental Health Association, the American Society for
Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy for Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry. These important distinctions in brain development, impulse control,
maturity and cognitive ability explain why we do not permit juveniles to vote,
serve in military combat, enter into contracts, drink alcohol, or make their own
medical decisions. Our federal government, 16 of the 38 states that permit
executions in this country, and virtually all other nations of the world
understand these differences and prohibit execution of child offenders.
So I am deeply troubled that many states in our nation, which views itself as
a beacon for the civilized world and the embodiment of the rule of law, persist
in a practice that defies international law and is so broadly condemned.
Although there have been reports of juvenile offenders being executed in other
countries in recent years, all except the United States either have changed
their laws or denied such executions took place.
The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the death penalty
itself, does oppose the execution of juvenile offenders and persons who are
mentally retarded. Although the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed
execution of mentally retarded defendants in June, it has not addressed the
constitutionality of juvenile offender executions in light of recent analysis of
child brain development.
Our position is not grounded on sympathy, but rather on common decency and
fundamental justice, and the notion that we should punish according to
culpability. We should reserve the most severe punishment for the worst
offenders. Executing child offenders is inconsistent with these concepts.
That does not suggest that teenagers do not understand the difference between
right and wrong, or that they should not face punishment for violating society’s
laws. It does mean that they should not pay for their mistakes with their lives.
The moral force and legal justification for the death penalty, deterrence and
retribution, simply do not apply in the case of juvenile offenders. Other
teenagers, acting impulsively, typically lacking judgment and self-control, will
not be deterred when we execute their contemporaries. We dare not hold children
accountable for their actions to the same degree as we do adults. To do so
serves no principled purpose, and only demeans our system of justice.