Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Before Supreme Court outlawed death penalty for juveniles, Virginia executed 3 in such cases
Although it comes too late for three men put to death in Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars capital punishment for juvenile killers will have an immediate effect in a state that ranks second nationally in executions.
The Supreme Court's ruling - that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone for what they did as a 16- or 17-year-old - is expected to affect the case of Shermaine Johnson, the only person currently on Virginia's death row for a crime committed as a juvenile.
Also affected is Lee Boyd Malvo, who until the high court's Tuesday decision had faced the possibility of a death sentence from a second trial in the sniper killings that terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in 2002.
Since 1998, Virginia has executed three juvenile offenders. All were 17 when they killed and in their 20s when they were executed.
Although a handful of juveniles from Southwest Virginia have been charged with capital murder, none received a death sentence.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision was praised by those in Virginia opposed to capital punishment and panned by those who say the jury room is the best place to pass judgment on society's worst killers.
"This decision is important for Virginia, as we have the dubious distinction of being among the seven states that have executed a juvenile since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976," said Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
By ending that practice, the Supreme Court did Tuesday what Virginia's General Assembly has declined to do.
"This decision recognizes that these young people are not mentally fully formed, resulting in bad decisions and impulsive behavior," said Del. Al Eisenberg, D-Arlington, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to end the death penalty for juvenile offenders. "The science is very clear on this. The court's decision recognizes this." Johnson was 16 when he raped and killed a Petersburg woman. Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Judy Jagdmann, said Tuesday that the office is reviewing the high court's decision before deciding how to proceed with his case.
"It is unfortunate that five justices of the United States Supreme Court substituted their judgment for the will of the people of Virginia," Jagdmann said in a prepared statement.
Del. Dave Albo, a Fairfax County Republican who heads the Virginia Crime Commission, said those opposed to death sentences for juvenile offenders wrongly assume them to be "cute and cuddly" teenagers.
"If he's adult enough to rape and kill somebody," Albo said, "then he's adult enough to get the death penalty."