- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

If it's proper morally to execute a duly convicted 18-year-old murderer, why should a 17-year-old who commits a similar offense be spared?

It's a question at least four of the Supreme Court's justices should ask themselves as they continue to push for the abolition of capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter this week formally stated their opposition to the execution of criminals under the legally arbitrary age of 18. Writing for the minority in a 5-4 dissent, Justice Stevens wrote that capital punishment applied to those under 18 "is a relic of the past that is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society … We should put an end to this shameful practice." Justice Stevens argued that those under 18 have poor impulse control and are not fully culpable morally for their actions. He added that the death penalty served no deterrent purpose when it comes to juvenile offenders though he apparently forgets that by removing such individuals from the Earth, they are thereby rendered very much "deterred" from committing mayhem in the future.

Justice Stevens likened the execution of a juvenile murderer to that of a mentally retarded or incompetent person in effect, arguing that at age 18, a sudden moral and intellectual awakening occurs that opens the eyes of the young murderer to the foul nature of his deed. It's an absurd proposition on its face, and should be read more correctly as the leading edge of a more general attack upon capital punishment itself. Once the execution of 17-year-old murderers is proscribed on the basis of "evolving standards of decency," it won't be much of a stretch to extend the reprieve to all those found guilty of capital offenses. Justice Stevens' opinion was co-signed by the court's other three liberal jurists, whose watery-eyed views on the subject suggest a detachment from reality that ought to bother sensible Americans.

The court's majority still favors holding young thugs fully culpable for the adult crimes they commit. Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are reliable on this score, and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor have tended to stick with the court's three conservatives on the issue. In the event a vacancy should arise, it is not likely that President Bush would put forward a new justice who would side with the court's liberal wing. However, the tenuous majority highlights the importance of the pending congressional elections, the outcome of which will either make it easier or harder for Mr. Bush to secure the necessary backing he needs to make sound judicial appointments. Several of the court's justices are elderly or frail, and the issue of a new appointment could easily come up during the next couple of years.

It's just another good reason to pay attention this election season and to vote.

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