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2005-03-02

Supreme Court Abolishes Death Penalty For Juveniles in Landmark Ruling

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In a landmark decision on the death penalty, the Supreme Court abolished the execution of juveniles. We speak with a mother whose son was executed for an offense he committed when he was 17 and the sister of a murder victim who now campaigns against the death penalty, as well as the coordinator for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. [includes rush transcript]

In a 5 to 4 ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles. The historic decision came in the Roper V. Simmons case out of Missouri which involved Christopher Simmons, who was 17 in 1993 when he tied up a woman and threw her from a bridge to her death. The Supreme Court decision overturned his death sentence declaring that the execution of juveniles violates the Eighth amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This decision could affect more than 70 death-row inmates who face execution for murders done when they were 16 or 17 years old. Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

In an unusual move, the Supreme Court ruling cited the "overwhelming weight of international opinion" in banning executions of those under 18. Justice Kennedy, noted that the U.S was the only country in the world that still officially permitted the execution of juveniles. He wrote that since 1990, only seven countries have executed persons under 18. They are Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China. However, all of these countries have since publicly disavowed the practice. Justice Kennedy also noted that the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the juvenile death penalty, has been ratified by every country except Somalia and the United States.

But fellow justice Antonin Scalia assailed Kennedy’s argument. Scalia took the unusual step of reading his 24-page dissent from the bench. He accused the court of "proclaiming itself sole arbiter of our nation’s moral standards." Scalia disputed the notion that a national consensus on the juvenile death penalty has emerged and warned about taking into account international opinion.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas signed onto Scalia’s dissent. Justice Sandra O’Connor issued a separate dissenting argument.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now joined today by Rena Beazley. Her son Napolean Beazley was executed when he was 17 in Texas in 2002. She joins us on the phone from Grapeland, Texas. We’re also joined from Illinois by Jennifer Bishop. She’s the founding member of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights. She lost her pregnant sister, as well as her brother-in-law. They were murdered. She speaks out against the death penalty. And in Washington, D.C., in studio, Jotaka Eaddy, domestic program coordinator for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. First, I wanted to turn to Rena Beazley, mother of Napoleon Beazley, killed in 2002. He was executed when he was 17. Can you talk about the ruling?

RENA BEAZLEY: Well, Napolean was sentenced to death in 1994. On the day of his execution, we all know that Simmons’ execution was upheld and he was allowed to live, and based on — they were waiting for the ruling from the Atkins case, and of course, Napolean’s stay was denied, and he was executed May 28 of 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: How old was he when he was executed?

RENA BEAZLEY: He was 25 at the time of execution.

AMY GOODMAN: 25. 17 when he committed the crime.

RENA BEAZLEY: 17 when he committed the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if the decision had come down two years ago, from the Supreme Court, he would not have died?

RENA BEAZLEY: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction?

RENA BEAZLEY: Ma’am?

AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction?

RENA BEAZLEY: Bittersweet, happy for the 70 other families that’s been affected by the bill, yet upset at the fact that we lost our Napolean’s life — was taken away. Napoleon had all of qualities that should have allowed him to live. He had no history of violence. He was — he was one of the tops in his class. He was class president. He was athletic. He was just an all-around good kid. Yet, you know, he was in an incident, and the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, and that was not Napolean. If the governor had issued a stay, today Napolean would have been alive.

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t deny he committed the murder?

RENA BEAZLEY: He did not deny. We don’t deny.

AMY GOODMAN: The reason you feel that the death penalty was inappropriate, the circumstances?

RENA BEAZLEY: Well —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you opposed to the death penalty overall?

RENA BEAZLEY: Not overall. I don’t want their blood on my hands. I don’t want to be the one to say somebody has to die, but in the case of a serial killer, or there’s instances where I could just look the other way, but for a 17-year-old and under, based on all of the things that Kennedy said, I agree with. They don’t have — they’re immature, they don’t think about the consequences. They have been under the care of their parents all of their lives, never left the household of their parents, and then they go and they mess up, and I just think that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, if we’re going to have the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Jennifer Bishop. You lost your sister-in-law — your sister, who was pregnant, your sister’s husband in 1990. They were murdered. Can you talk about their case and why you still oppose the death penalty?

JENNIFER BISHOP: Yes. My sister was murdered by a 16-year-old in suburban Chicago, and there was a move in Illinois to start a juvenile death penalty here after her murder, and let me just say that, you know, as a murder victim’s family member, I also — my heart just goes out this morning to the Beazley family and to others like them, because I think that we have come to a place as a nation that we realize that killing children is not the solution to the violence problem in our country, and there isn’t a deterrent value. We’re talking about, you know, new evidence, and of course, I knew this from the time that we found out the 16-year-old brutally murdered my pregnant sister and her husband, that, you know, that there’s something wrong with impulse control, that there is judgment questions. We have brain research that shows the frontal lobe not fully formed until their 20s. We know — every parent has known from time in memoriam that kids this age are not capable of the same kind of sound reasoning and judgment that adults are capable of. So I think it’s really good that the court has recognized this. I know in my case, killing more children is a response to the horrific things that have happened to us — it’s not the solution. It doesn’t deter. It doesn’t save us anything in terms of public safety. It does not really make us a safer or better people. In fact, how we treat those among us that are the worst of the worst is really how we are judged as individuals and as a society. And to execute children when there is redemption possible, and when there are opportunities to rehabilitate them, this just a real — I’m glad, as a nation, very, very glad, this morning that we have abolished this practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Jotaka Eaddy, joining us in Washington, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Your response.

JOTAKA EADDY: I think yesterday was a very historic moment for all of us that are doing work, been working so long against the death penalty, and that we’re just so pleased, our organization, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, as well as many of the other organizations and activists and advocates out there who are opposed to this practice, that the US Supreme Court has recognized that kids are different. They have recognized that we have evolved as a world. We have evolved as a society, and that the execution and the imposition of the death penalty on children —- we’re talking about 16— and 17-year-olds — is barbaric. It’s a human rights violation, I think. You echoed at beginning of the segment a lot of attention paid to the international community and international law. The United States was alone in this practice. I think also what was very important is that we had a national consensus, and Justice Kennedy noted that we had a national consensus and the number of states that had changed their laws, who had debated this and their state legislators that found that we no longer needed this practice. There was public opinion and numerous child welfare groups and other groups that are not necessarily totally opposed to the death penalty, that are opposed to the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders. So, we really reached that moment in this country and national consensus, and we’re so pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized that.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance — now, we’re talking about state law, because the federal death penalty did not apply to juveniles, and Scott McClellan, President Bush’s Press Secretary, said Bush has no plans to change the federal law. So we’re just talking about the state laws. But that is very significant. Does this mean now, that’s it? Absolutely every person who committed a crime before they were 18 will be taken off of death row, as of today?

JOTAKA EADDY: Yes, there is definitely going to be some movement in the states, some of the states as you know, they’re — right now, including Missouri, it’s 31 states that prohibit the practice, but we’re going to see a lot of the states are going to have to change their statutes and their codes to reflect the opinion of the Supreme Court that we saw yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this idea of the judge bringing in the issue of international opinion here in weighing in, saying that it helped to shape his decision?

JOTAKA EADDY: I think that we have seen this before. We saw that with Atkins v. Virginia, which was the case that involved the death penalty for the — those suffering from mental retardation, and which we saw in 2002 where the Supreme Court barred and prohibited, found that unconstitutional. And we have seen that in some other cases, but clearly, the world opinion is very important in international law. The United States was the only country in the world that was actively and legally executing and imposing the death penalty on persons under the age of 18. The rest of the world had moved away from this practice. It’s been a dramatic move from the rest of the world, violating several international covenants and instruments including, as we saw, an opinion of the international covenant on civil and political rights, the UN Convention on the rights of the child, several UN Human Rights Commission resolutions as well as other international covenants. It was — basically it had risen to a level where it was just international norm not to execute persons that are under the age of 18. So, I think the Justices recognized this, and I think it’s important that we recognize that we’re part of a global community and that this is one of — a very gross violation of human rights in this country, and I think the court is recognizing this, and it’s good to note that Justice Kennedy said it wasn’t necessarily controlling, but we are part of a global community and we have to look at and recognize that we were violating a fundamental right that the rest of the world had recognized. And so I think it’s important that we look at human rights as we’re shaping the laws in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Jotaka, this doesn’t relate to juvenile death penalty, but also yesterday the Republican-controlled New York Senate in Albany announced it will pass legislation next week to reinstate the death penalty. Eight months ago, New York’s highest court struck down the death penalty after determining jury instruction provisions would cause some jurors to vote for death when they really didn’t want to. Now they’re saying they’re going to reinstate it. Your response?

JOTAKA EADDY: I think, and it’s important to know that in New York there’s a large majority of activists and citizens, and New Yorkers that are opposed to the death penalty. I’m sure many people are aware of the large numbers of people that came out to testify against reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. I think what’s important is that we recognize the large number of people that came out in opposition to this. I think that the battle is not necessarily lost in New York, but I think it’s important to see that we are moving along, and moving forward in this fight against the death penalty overall. We have seen those that are suffering from mental retardation barred from the death penalty, today — yesterday we saw juvenile offenders moved off death row, and we’re also seeing in different states like in New York, as you spoke of, we saw where it was struck unconstitutional in New York, and we also have seen the same thing in Kansas. There are a number of states that are weighing moratorium legislation, so we are moving forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, in this week, New Mexico House voted to abolish the death penalty. Jennifer Bishop, do you see what the Supreme Court decided, the striking down of death penalty for juveniles, do you see it as part of a continuum? Do you think that the death penalty will be abolished in this country, Jennifer?

JENNIFER BISHOP: It’s because — it’s not because, you know, other people are telling us to do it, I think the court is recognizing that the international opinion affirms what they themselves are seeing here. So, I don’t think that that’s necessarily because the outside community is telling us that, although, I do think that that does tell us something that we are behind on. But I do think that the nation is going to come to recognize more and more that it doesn’t help victims. I mean, I’m absolute testimony to that. It does not make victims feel better. It doesn’t save us money. It doesn’t deter crime. It doesn’t help to show that killing is wrong. It doesn’t reduce violence. In fact, there seems to be a clear relationship that there’s more violence in states where there are a lot of executions. We have to, as a society, stand up in our laws and say that killing is wrong. I have experienced it firsthand and I’m telling you as a murder victim’s family member that we know how wrong it is to kill. And we as a nation cannot kill those who are killing in order to show that it is wrong. We have to stop and look instead with our resources and our time and our money at ways we can prevent the violence. We need to look into crime prevention programs, and we need to look at mental health issues and we need to work in community policing and other areas that are going to really fight the crime and prevent the violence rather than just to replicate the very act which we are trying to oppose.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Bishop, Rena Beazley, and Jotaka Eaddy, I want to thank you all for being with us.

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