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Death Penalty Opponents Heartened As Justices Question Teen Executions

By David G. Savage
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Thanks in part to recent Supreme Court rulings, optimism has surged through the ranks of the anti-capital punishment movement this year.

In June, the Supreme Court voted to end executions of mentally retarded killers, saying that both the nation and the world had come to view the practice as cruel and unusual punishment. The 6-3 majority pointed to a wave of state laws exempting retarded persons from the ultimate punishment.

Hours before Toronto Patterson, the Dallas man convicted for shooting three of his relatives when he was 17, was put to death by lethal injection, Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the court’s opinion on the mentally retarded, said he and his colleagues should consider a similar ban for juvenile murderers.

“Given the apparent consensus that exists among the States and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender, I think it would be appropriate to revisit the issue at the earliest opportunity,” Stevens wrote.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer issued a short statement saying they agreed with Stevens.

It takes the votes of four justices to hear a case, and five to make a majority. In late September, when the justices meet to consider appeals that arrived during the summer recess, they will have before them several cases from Death Row inmates who were juveniles at the time of their crime.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “The missing element is a few more states to abolish it on their own. And that should be enough to get one or two more justices to weigh in.”

Supporters of capital punishment say the current system allows juries to consider the issue on a case-by-case basis.

“Some 17-year-olds are just as mature as a 25-year old,” said Dudley Sharp of Justice For All, a pro-death penalty group based in Houston. “The jury should look at the individual situation and make the decision,” he said.

In all death penalty cases, the defense lawyer can point to the murderer’s youth as a reason for mercy.

“States have a right to decide how they are going to punish cold-blooded killers,” said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.

In all, 38 states authorize the death penalty, and 22 of them allow it to be imposed on those who commit murder while under age 18. But such death sentences are rare.

Nationwide, about 3,700 convicted murderers are condemned to death. Among these, 80 were under 18 when they committed their crimes, about 2 percent of the total.