- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Supreme Court fell one vote short yesterday of hearing a plea to halt the execution of juveniles convicted of murder.

Five justices who voted against examining the constitutionality of executing murderers under 18 did not explain their decision, but four dissenters issued a written opinion calling for an end to "this shameful practice."

After a 6-3 decision in June that said "evolving standards of decency" bar executions of moderately retarded killers, Justice John Paul Stevens said the same rationale applied to executing teenagers.

"The practice of executing such [young] offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice Stevens wrote in a dissent that never mentioned Kevin Stanford's victim.

Stanford, then 17, was sentenced to die in 1983 for murdering and sodomizing Baerbel Poore, 20, a female gas station attendant in rural Jefferson County, Ky., in January 1981.

Of the nation's 3,701 death-row inmates, 83 were convicted while juveniles in the 22 states that allow the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The federal government prohibits the practice for juveniles prosecuted in federal court.

Stanford did not follow the usual appeals process but filed an "original" petition for a "writ of habeas corpus." It says that executing murderers who committed their crimes before turning 18 violates the Constitution and takes five votes to warrant a full hearing.

The four dissenting votes typically would have placed the appeal on the court docket for a full hearing. Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined Justice Stevens in dissent.

Advocates for abolishing the death penalty want the court to make the practice unconstitutional and expect the court to eventually consider a similar appeal. Sixteen of the 38 states that allow the death penalty prohibit it for those under 18.

Stanford's lawyer, Margaret O'Donnell, said she is "very hopeful for clemency" and called four votes in favor of hearing the issue a sign that the court may accept a pending appeal from Oklahoma that involves the same question.

That case involves Scott A. Hain, condemned to die for the 1987 burning deaths of Michael William Houghton, 27, and Laura Lee Sanders, 22. His Supreme Court appeal on the age issue was filed Sept. 14, and a decision is likely by year's end.

In a separate ruling yesterday, the court refused to free Charles Foster, who said that the 27 years since his 1975 death sentence in Florida was too long.

Justice Breyer was the lone dissenter. He said the "inevitable anxieties and uncertainties" of the long wait "in death row's twilight" raise questions about cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Breyer, who often invokes foreign law and policy in his opinions, cited in his opinion practices and concerns in Jamaica, Britain and Canada.

That drew a scornful response from Justice Clarence Thomas, who denounced Justice Breyer's arguments to "impose foreign modds, fads, or fashions on Americans" and recounted the viciousness of a killing that Foster admitted to in open court.

On July 25, 1975, Julian Lanier, 65, a General Motors retiree, was lured to a secluded area by the promise of sexual relations with two young women he had met in a bar, then was attacked by Foster.

Foster "could long ago have ended his 'anxieties and uncertainties' by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution," wrote Justice Thomas, who said he also could have avoided the pain by not killing Mr. Lanier.

Meanwhile, yesterday a federal circuit court in New York heard the government appeal from District Judge Jed Rakoff's ruling July 1 that the 1994 federal death penalty law is unconstitutional.

Lawyer Kevin McNally, who is Miss O'Donnell's law partner, argued that Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez should not face death for the June 27, 1999, murder of Edwin Santiago, whose body was burned to conceal his identity. Mr. Santiago was a police informant about the defendants' heroin and cocaine ring in the Bronx.

Judge Rakoff said there can be no due process in death-penalty cases because of the prospect that innocent people will be convicted. He said DNA and the possibility of future discoveries make it impossible to fairly sentence anyone to death.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide