Let's ban execution of juveniles

Friday, May 2, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- For nearly 10 years, I served as a Missouri Supreme Court judge, including two years as the chief justice. During that time, I signed death warrants for three individuals who were convicted of murder and ultimately executed.

I also worked as a special assistant to the Missouri attorney general and argued for the death penalty in 15 cases prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1983 by then-governor Christopher Bond.

I am indeed no stranger to capital punishment, nor am I oblivious of the reprehensible crimes perpetrated by offenders in our communities and the profound suffering wreaked upon families who have lost loved ones to murder.

With this background and knowledge, I also have serious concerns about the death penalty, including the imposition of death upon juvenile offenders. I therefore urge Missouri lawmakers to pass in this legislative session a ban on the juvenile death penalty.

Senate Bill 312, sponsored by state Sen. Jon Dolan of Lake St. Louis, and House Bill 255, sponsored by state Rep. Larry Crawford of Centertown, would exempt 16- and 17-year-olds from capital punishment.

All offenders should be held accountable for their crimes, especially violent crimes. As a civilized and decent society, we do, however, draw some very definite and appropriate lines for consequences and responsibilities.

We draw a clear line of adulthood at 18. We do not allow 16- and 17-year-olds to drive late at night, purchase tobacco products, sign contracts, serve in the military or vote.

Therefore, it does not make sense to subject minors to the most extreme punishment when we recognize they are not as mature as adults in so many other ways.

Leaders in a civilized society must recognize that some citizens are less culpable than others. That is why in 2001 Missouri legislators wisely passed and Gov. Bob Holden signed Senate Bill 267 banning the death sentencing of mentally retarded individuals. Officials understood these citizens, as a group, are a special class of persons who are not as responsible for their actions as are fully functioning adults.

This is precisely the reason why juveniles should be spared from the death penalty.

We know that teens are going through many changes biologically and are subject to impulsiveness, poor judgment, immaturity and low self-esteem. Scientific evidence now proves that portions of the brain that govern consideration of consequences and inhibit impulses do not fully develop until at least 18 years of age or later in human beings.

Juveniles often do know right from wrong, but the challenges and tensions they face certainly make them less culpable than healthy adult offenders. Of all those who commit crimes, furthermore, adolescents are most capable of growth and maturation.

Twenty-eight states prohibit capital punishment for juveniles, and 11 others are considering bills to do the same. Missouri should lead this group.

Once more, I urge our state legislators to reserve the death penalty for adults and pass a ban on the juvenile death penalty. I urge Governor Holden to then sign the bill, making the provision the law of Missouri's land.

Charles Blackmar is a senior judge.

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