Juveniles And Death Penalty Free Essays 123

(CNN)The verdict is in, and James Holmes has been found guilty of first-degree murder for killing 12 people in a movie theater in July 2012. The Colorado jury predictably rejected his insanity defense, but that is not the end of the story. That same jury will now begin determining whether he should be executed or serve the rest of his life in prison. And, as a result, America once again finds itself in a virtually unique discussion among rich nations on whether capital punishment should apply to one of its citizens.

As a former law enforcement officer, former prosecutor, criminal lawyer, and continuing real-world "student" of criminology, I've seen up close the evidence suggesting that the United States should not be having this conversation anymore, because it may be time to put an end to capital punishment completely.
This is not because I have any moral objection to executing the worst of the worst -- those who murder innocent victims, sometimes in the most horrific ways imaginable. It is hard to see capital punishment as particularly "cruel" or "unusual" when the victims will often have died much worse deaths than the killer will be subjected to. But the fact is that there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place.
1. Executions are actually less punitive than life without parole. I've never been to prison, but having dealt regularly with prisoners, it's clear that prison life is hard -- very hard. And you don't have to take my word for it. Recently executed murderer David Zink had this to say about it just before his death by lethal injection in Missouri:
"For those who remain on death row, understand that everyone is going to die. ... Statistically speaking, we have a much easier death than most, so I encourage you to embrace it and celebrate our true liberation before society figures it out and condemns us to life without parole and we too will die a lingering death."
This point of view is not surprising when you look at the Supermax prison in Colorado, which some have described as a fate worse than death. There, inmates typically spend 23 hours a day locked inside a cell, with little communication with other inmates or the outside world. There are also state versions of these facilities, which the New York City Bar Association has labeled as cruel and unusual punishment, likening imprisonment in one as torture under international law.
2. Death penalty litigation makes no financial sense. Numerous studies have found that death penalty criminal litigation costs taxpayers far more than prosecutions seeking life without parole. For example, in Colorado, where the Holmes jury now has to spend the next several weeks hearing evidence, the state will shell out approximately $3.5 million, as opposed to an average of $150,000 if the state had not sought the death penalty, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Why? Because the average length of the initial prosecution for a death penalty case -- not including lengthy appeals -- means more than a thousand extra days of courtroom resources are being used. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court reporters, jurors, bailiffs and other courtroom staff are all needed just to conduct a trial, and that means spending a lot of money from state coffers that could have been used elsewhere. In Colorado's case specifically, the state has executed exactly one person since 1976, when the Supreme Court of the United States lifted the moratorium on capital punishment in the landmark ruling of Gregg v. Georgia. So is this punishment phase of the Holmes trial really necessary? Only time will tell, but the fact remains that Colorado has historically been hesitant, to say the least, to execute murderers.
3. Death penalty litigation is harder on families of murder victims. Death penalty cases on average take 25 years or so to reach ultimate resolution, whether it be the imposition of the death sentence, a reversal or otherwise. As such, family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time. In fact, in Colorado, the trial portion of the process alone is six times longer than if the state were seeking life without parole.
4. The death penalty is not evenly applied. For starters, only 31 of the 50 U.S. states employ capital punishment. And even in states where it is an option, prosecutors can decide against pursuing a death sentence. This is the case in the "hot car death" in Cobb County, Georgia, involving Justin Ross Harris, who is accused of murdering his young son by leaving him strapped in a car seat to bake to death. With the death penalty off the table, any conviction and appeals process would be much shorter than in a capital case.
Wise use of prosecutorial discretion should therefore be welcomed, not least because prosecutors know their cases better than anyone. Also, prosecutorial discretion can mean that a case costs much less, eliminates many appellate issues, shortens the trial and ultimately brings the matter to a conclusion much sooner than if it were a death penalty trial.
5. Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row. The fact is that innocent people are convicted and sometimes end up on death row. I have plenty of heartbreaking stories of clients who, in my opinion, were convicted of crimes they did not commit. And I am far from alone -- there have been 154 verified cases of death row exonerations since 1973.
Meanwhile, a study last year found that, at a conservative estimate, "more than 4 percent of inmates sentenced to death in the United States are probably innocent." Indeed, there have been 330 exonerations based on DNA alone, with 20 of those defendants having served time on death row since the advent of DNA technology. A case from North Carolina underscores this point. There, Henry McCollum was released last year after spending some 30 years on death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl that DNA evidence suggested he did not commit. With cases such as this, it defies all reason to believe that no innocent person has been executed in the United States.
The bottom line is this: While the death penalty is neither "cruel," when taking into account the cruelty so often inflicted on the victim, nor "unusual," in that it has been around for millennia, there are simply too many practical reasons for states to curtail or abandon their use of the death penalty. Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States.
Of course, the debate over capital punishment is a longstanding one, and there is no end to it in sight. But it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity -- of continuing to follow a system that does not deter violent crime for determined individuals.
One example of such a determined individual is admitted cop killer, Jamie Hood, who was recently convicted of the murder of Athens, Georgia Police officer Buddy Christian. Bizarrely, Hood represented himself and beat almost half of the 70 count indictment and also "won" the sentencing phase of the trial when a jury, after deliberating only about an hour and a half, returned a verdict of life without parole -- a sentence which Hood offered to accept on a guilty plea. This further illustrates that capital punishment does not deter individuals who are intent on murder.
Just ask Chattanooga or Charleston.

As a society, we recognize that children, those under 18 years old, can not and do not function as adults. That is why the law takes special steps to protect children from the consequences of their actions and often seeks to ameliorate the harm cause when children make wrong choices by giving them a second chance. The law prohibits people under eighteen from voting, serving in the military and on juries, but in some states, they can be executed for crimes they committed before they reach adulthood. The United States Supreme Court prohibits execution for crimes committed at the age of fifteen or younger. Nineteen states have laws permitting the execution of persons who committed crimes at sixteen or seventeen. Since 1973, 226 juvenile death sentences have been imposed. Twenty-two juvenile offenders have been executed and 82 remain on death row. 

  • On January 27, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review whether executing sixteen and seventeen year-olds violates the Constitution's  ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment.' The review comes after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of 17 year-old Christopher Simmons. Roper v. Simmons will be reviewed by the justices this fall, four of whom have called the juvenile death penalty 'inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.'

 While adolescents can and should be held accountable for their actions, new scientific information demonstrates that they can not fairly be held accountable to the same extent as adults. Studies by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and the UCLA's Department of Neuroscience finds that the frontal and pre-frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents. Development is not completed until somewhere between 18 and 22 years of age. These findings confirm that adolescents generally have a greater tendency towards impulsivity, making unsound judgments or reasoning, and are less aware of the consequences of their actions.

Because of their immaturity, adolescent children are also more likely to be coerced by adults and are sometimes the pawns for more sophisticated criminals. They are also more likely to be taken advantage of during the investigation of a criminal case. Juveniles are often intimidated by adults and authority figures, and are therefore more likely to be the victims of coerced confessions, which are often false. Moreover juveniles are less likely to invoke their Miranda Rights, including their right to legal representation. Most importantly, the goals of the death penalty do not apply to juveniles. Retribution aims to give the harshest punishment to the worst offender. Juveniles are the most likely to be capable of rehabilitation. Given their emotional immaturity and lessened culpability, they are not among the ""worst of the worst.""

Public opinion in the United States increasingly opposes the execution of juvenile offenders. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 69 percent of the people polled opposed the death penalty for juveniles; only 22 percent supported the execution of juvenile offenders, while 5 percent offered no opinion. Meanwhile, the juvenile death penalty disproportionately affects children of color, as it is subject to the same racial disparities as have been discovered throughout the use of capital punishment.

Internationally, the execution of juveniles is largely considered inhumane, anachronistic, and in direct conflict with fundamental principles of justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bans the execution of juvenile offenders. Although the United States has signed the ICCPR and therefore agreed to be bound by its standards, the U.S. has reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders as long as our Constitution is interpreted to permit the practice. Of the 123 countries that currently use the death penalty, only the United States and Iran impose death sentences on juveniles. In the fall of 2003, however, Iran's judiciary began drafting a bill that will raise the minimum age for death sentences from fifteen to eighteen. The bill will also exclude those under eighteen from receiving life-terms or lashing as punishment. Ironically, many of the countries that the United States government regularly criticizes for human rights abuses have abolished the practice of executing juveniles. For example, between 1994 and 2000, Yemen, Zimbabwe, China and parts of Pakistan amended their laws to prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders. In continuing what is universally viewed as a barbaric and uncivilized practice, the United States has, over the past decade, executed more juvenile offenders than every other nation in the world combined.

See the American Bar Association's web site on Juvenile Death Penalty

Read information and statistics about the juvenile death penalty here

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