Behind the Rush to Execute Juveniles

By: Sue Fitzgerald

The recent tragic shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., where two young boys murdered several classmates and a teacher, have led some people to call for the death penalty - for an 11 and 13 year old. This is disgusting. And although federal law prohibits the execution of anyone under the age of 16, after the Jonesboro shootings, many politicians and pro-death penalty advocates are pushing for change.

Texas Rep. Jim Pitts has proposed a bill that would allow Texas to impose the death penalty on kids as young as 11. As far as he is concerned, the age could even be set lower.

Last year, California Gov. Pete Wilson said he would support legislation that would permit executing 14 year olds. A day later, California Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante said he might - "with a tear in my eye" - support executions for "hardened criminals" as young as 13.

Occurrences like the Jonesboro shootings are tragic, but they are hardly part of a new trend. In fact, juvenile crime rates have been dropping for the past four years, along with all crime rates.

As it presently stands, the United States has a horrendous record of sentencing juveniles to death. Since 1990, only six countries allowed people to be executed for crimes they committed as children - and only five carried out the executions. And the U.S. lead the way, killing nine juvenile offenders since 1990. This is more than any other country, according to Amnesty International.

Among those juvenile offenders are people like Joseph Cannon. On April 22, Joseph Cannon became the tenth juvenile offender executed in the U.S. in the last 15 years.

Joseph's entire childhood was tragic. An injury at the age of 4 left him with an IQ of only 79. He was regularly beaten, and from the age of 7 to 17, he was sexually abused by his stepfather and grandfather. This abuse led him to drugs and alcohol. At 15, Joseph was so depressed that he tried to kill himself. By the time he was 17, two psychiatrists diagnosed him as severely schizophrenic.

Joseph ended up on death row after murdering Anne Walsh. He said he heard voices telling him to do it. But the jury never heard about Joseph's history of mental illness or about the horrible abuse that Joseph suffered his entire life.

And so, despite the fact that every major international human rights treaty forbids the execution of people for crimes they committed when under the age of 18, the state of Texas executed Joseph - a man who clearly belonged in a mental institution, not on death row - on April 22.

And Joseph's case is not unusual. There are 67 juvenile offenders waiting to be executed.

Some politicians like Pitts want to see the horrendous record of the U.S. get even worse by proposing legislation that puts even younger individuals under the sentence of death.

"I want to give an option to a district attorney," Pitts said. "If they feel like they have enough evidence and the right kid, they ought to be able to have the option to try this kid as an adult."

And which juvenile offenders is Pitts talking about? It just so happens that two out of three of the juveniles sentenced to death in the U.S. are minorities.