Monday, January 03, 2005
Editorial: End the death penalty for juveniles
The General Assembly should take this one step, at least, against capital punishment.
From the RoundTable blog
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Conscience, supported by science, should compel state lawmakers to embrace principle over politics on this grave moral issue. But death penalty opponents say that, this year, even the politics are on their side. They plan to press the General Assembly to cut Virginia from the 17 states that allow the ultimate penalty for crimes committed by adolescents.
The source of optimism for the Virginia Alliance to End the Juvenile Death Penalty? A Virginia jury's decision last year to sentence Lee Boyd Malvo to life in prison rather than death for one of 10 killings in the 2002 sniper shooting spree that terrified the Washington area and transfixed the nation.
Malvo was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad went on their rampage. If jurors balked at condemning a youth to die for such a terrible crime, alliance members reason, surely this signals a shift in public attitudes. And lawmakers can safely fall in line.
Perhaps. But Virginia politicians have yet to lose an election for being too "tough" on crime. The state's presumptive Republican gubernatorial candidate has gone so far as to propose a legislative monstrosity called the Death Penalty Enhancement Act, lest the state fall behind in the number of people it kills. So sure is he that fear of crime sells.
Still, elected officials have not tested public response to a more judicious and humane approach. And it is time they did.
DNA has refuted the notion that innocent people never end up on death row. Science offers compelling evidence, as well, that even the guilty acted with diminished capacity if they committed their crimes as juveniles. Recent studies of the brain show its impulse control center does not develop fully till age 20 or 21.
Lawmakers should eliminate the death penalty at least against the young, because that is the right thing to do. And isn't moral leadership what voters say they expect of their politicians these days?