Supreme Court declines to hear appeal on execution of juveniles

W By Shannon McCaffrey

wASHINGTON – A sharply divided Supreme Court refused Monday to consider abolishing the execution of juvenile killers. By a 5-4 margin the court declined to hear the appeal of a Kentucky man who has been sentenced to die for abducting, sodomizing and killing a gas station attendant when he was 17.

Last term, the high court banned the death penalty for mentally retarded people, ruling it was “cruel and unusual punishment.” Four of the more liberal justices said Monday that the court’s review should extend to those who commit capital crimes before they are 18.

Justice John Paul Stevens on Monday called the practice of putting juvenile offenders to death “shameful.” “The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,” he wrote in his dissent from the majority opinion.

In refusing to hear the appeal, the majority offered no comment.

Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Stevens in his dissent.

Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer had said over the summer that they wanted the court to take up the issue of juvenile killers on death row. The case of Kevin Nigel Stanford, of Louisville, would have allowed them to do so.

Stanford, now 39, has been on death row since 1982. He was convicted of shooting a 20-year-old woman in the face and leaving her body kneeling in the back seat of her mother’s Chevrolet Impala, jeans and underwear around her ankles.

In 1989, the Supreme Court used an appeal by Stanford to uphold juvenile executions. In the new appeal, Stanford’s lawyers argued that his execution would be unconstitutional.

Stanford’s lawyer Margaret O’Donnell said that like the mentally retarded, teen-agers were not as culpable as adults for crimes they committed. She cited research on brain development showing that adolescents are “less able to control their impulses and make reasoned judgements” than adults are.

In the mentally retarded case, the court relied on trends in the states. Thirty states had forbidden such executions.

In Stevens’ dissent Monday, the four high court justices used the same reasoning. They noted that 28 state legislatures have barred capital punishment for juveniles, five of them after the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling allowing such executions.

“In the last 13 years a national consensus has developed that juvenile offenders should not be executed,” the dissent said.

Twelve states forbid the death penalty altogether.

O’Donnell said Monday that her client had reached the end of his legal appeals. Without clemency from Kentucky’s governor he will be executed, she said.

Barbara Hadley Smith, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler, said a death warrant for Stanford soon would be submitted to Gov. Paul Patton, asking him to set an execution date.

About 2 percent of America’s death row inmates committed their crimes as juveniles. All told, there are 3,718 people on death row, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that permit the execution of those under 18. Among the others are Iran and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Separately Monday, Breyer said the court should hear the case of Charles Foster, who is scheduled to be executed after spending 27 years on death row in Florida. The court was asked to consider whether leaving an inmate on death row for decades amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The long stay was caused in part by several procedural errors by the state.

Breyer wrote that if Foster, now 55, is executed he “will have been punished both by death and also by more than a generation spent in death row’s twilight.”

But Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that Foster could have ended his anxieties long ago “by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution.”

The court turned down Foster’s appeal.

Also Monday, the court refused to intervene in two disputes over public access to beaches in California. Two Santa Barbara County landowners claim the government unfairly seized their property. In one case the county built a beach access path and in the other it claimed an easement the size of a football field.