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Facts about capital punishment

Part 5: Executing child criminals: Overview,
Countries practicing it, the Bible, Opposition.

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Quotations:

bullet"When a society starts killing its children, something is wrong, something is deadly wrong."  Joseph Green Brown, death row survivor, 1998-MAY.
bullet"Evidence of innocence is irrelevant" Mary Sue Terry, former Attorney General of Virginia, replying to an appeal to introduce new evidence from an innocent prisoner sentenced to death.

Overview:

By the end of 1987, the execution of murderers who were children at the time of the offense -- i.e. under the age of 18 -- had been abandoned in all developed countries, except for the United States. Many western democracies severely criticized the United States for this practice.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of murderers who were under the age of 17.

In 2005-MAR, the court reduced the cutoff age so that 16 year-old offenders could not be sentenced to be executed. As in most rulings related to ethics and morality, the vote was close: 5 to 4.

Countries that still execute child criminals:

Quoting author Rollin Perkins, Judge Michael A. Wolff of the Supreme Court of MIssouri, wrote:

"In the 13th century, a seven-year-old boy was tried for murder; his execution was 'pardoned for the king's sake."....English records also show that a 13-year-old girl was executed for killing her mistress, a 10-year-old boy was executed for killing a companion, and an eight-year-old boy was similarly punished for 'maliciously' burning some barns. Perkins also notes that American records show the execution of two 12-year-old boys for murder. The standards of decency...seem certainly to have evolved."

But they have evolved faster in some countries than in others.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibit the execution of a person who has committed a crime while a child (under the age of 18). The United States Senate ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, conditional on the continued right of individual states to impose the death penalty on juvenile murderers -- those aged 16 or 17 at the time that the crime was committed. The U.S. is the only country in the world to have not ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, except for Somalia which does not have a central government.

According to Amnesty International USA:

bullet"...The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body which oversees countries compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as many other international experts, have stated that this US reservation to the ICCPR should be withdrawn as it is incompatible with the treaty and therefore invalid."
 
bullet"...11 countries have expressly voiced their objections to the US reservation on the same grounds."
 
bullet"...the ban on the death penalty against child offenders is so widely agreed and adhered to that it is considered a principle of customary international law, binding on all countries regardless of which international treaties they have or have not ratified." 1

As of 2004-MAR, only six countries had laws on the books that allow the execution of juvenile offenders: Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Yemen had enabling laws in the 1990's, but has since abolished them.

In its Simmons v. Roper ruling in 2003-AUG, the Supreme Court of Missouri reported that officially sanctioned executions of juvenile murderers have occurred during the previous few years only in Iran, The Republic of the Congo, and the United States. Of all the countries of the world, the U.S. was the main killer of juvenile offenders. Of the last seven such executions worldwide, five occurred in the United States -- (mainly in Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia). 2,3

Capital crimes in biblical times:

Some of the 613 laws in the Mosaic Code of the Bible call for the death penalty for those guilty of a variety of behaviors: working on Saturday, committing adultery, being a sorcerer, following a different religion, religious proselytizing, performing a séance, engaging in incest. Also:

bulletMen engaging in homosexual activity in a Pagan temple, 4
bulletWomen having engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage,
bulletFemale prostitutes, and
bulletEngaged women who were raped in a town and who did not cry out for help during the attack.

were to be executed. Most were to be killed by stoning. However prostitutes who were daughters of a priest were to be burned alive. None of the above laws mentioned the perpetrator's age. So a person under 18 might be executed for engaging in one of these behaviors.

There are some offences aimed specifically at juvenile offenders in which the Bible required them to be be executed: cursing parents, hitting a parent, or being stubborn or rebellious. Sometimes, a death penalty implemented on an adult guilty of a crime would also require his or her children to be executed, even though they were innocent of any crime. The sins of the fathers would be translated to the children. Fortunately, with the exception of Christian Reconstructionism, no significant religious group in North America advocates the implementation of biblical standards for execution.

Opposition by religious groups to the death penalty for juvenile offenders:

Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have come a long way from their policies during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance when they executed tens of thousands of "witches" and other heretics. There are still some extreme Fundamentalist Christian individuals and groups in North America who advocate that sexually active homosexuals and followers of the Wiccan religion be executed by the state. However, almost all other faith groups have now abandoned all, or almost all, of the the biblical death penalties.

Generally speaking, most conservative faith groups support the death penalty for those found guilty of murder; some support the execution of juvenile murderers. Most liberal religious groups oppose the death penalty for all crimes. Mainline denominations and their membership take various positions.

Religion Link reported that:

"Religious leaders and organizations have been powerful lobbies on both sides of the death penalty debate. Those against the death penalty say it is their moral obligation to bring the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of the religious community's agenda. They also argue that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the U.S. to maintain its position as the global leader on human rights when it not only still executes people, but juveniles as well. On the other side of the debate, some religious leaders firmly believe the Sixth Commandment is a prohibition against murder and not a prohibition against the death penalty." 5

In 1989, a number of mainline and liberal faith groups filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Stanford v. Kentucky. They supported two juvenile murderers: Kevin Stanford who was about 17 years, 4 months of age at the time he committed murder, and Heath Wilkins who was about 16 years, 6 months of age. Both had been sentenced to be executed.

bulletSome were pacifist Christian groups with a long history of promoting civil rights and opposing killing: American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, and the General Conference Mennonite Church;
 
bulletThe United States Catholic Conference of the Roman Catholic Church also filed a brief. The Catholic Church has long promoted an end to the death penalty.
 
bulletMany liberal or mainline religious groups filed briefs: American Baptist Churches; American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), National Council of Churches; General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church; Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice; United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society; and West Virginia  Council of Churches.
 
bulletNo conservative Protestant faith groups appear to have supported Stanford and Wilkins in opposition to the death penalty for juvenile murderers. 2

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Opposition by secular groups to the death penalty for juvenile offenders:

Also in 1989, the following groups filed briefs during Stanford v. Kentucky indicating their opposition to the death penalty for juvenile offenders: The American Psychiatric Association, Child Welfare League of America; National Parents and Teachers Association; National Council on Crime and Delinquency; Children's Defense Fund; National Association of Social Workers; National Black Child Development Institute; National Network of Runaway and Youth Services; National Youth Advocate Program; and American Youth Work Center; American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and American Orthopsychiatric Association; Defense for Children International -- USA; National Legal Aid and Defender Association; and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Office of Capital Collateral Representative for the State of Florida; and International Human Rights Law Group. 2

Since 1989, the following groups have issued statements in opposition to the death penalty: Child Welfare League of America; National Parents and Teachers Association; National Council on Crime and Delinquency; Children's Defense Fund; National Association of Social Workers; National Black Child Development Institute; National Network of Runaway and Youth Services; National Youth Advocate Program; and American Youth Work Center; American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry and American Orthopsychiatric Association; Defense for Children International -- USA; National Legal Aid and Defender Association; and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Office of Capital Collateral Representative for the State of Florida; International Human Rights Law Group. 2

This topic is continued in another essay

References used:

All of the following hyperlinks were active at the time this essay was written or updated. Some may be broken today.

  1. "The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation" (Human Rights Watch essay at: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/
  2. "Simmons v. Roper," Supreme Court of Missouri, (2003), at: http://www.osca.state.mo.us/
  3. "Juveniles: The Death Penalty Gives up on Juvenile Offenders," Amnesty International, 2003-JUL-28, at http://www.amnestyusa.org/
  4. Some theologians interpret Leviticus 20:13 as applying to all sexual activity between two males, or even all sexual activity between two men or two women.
  5. "The Death Penalty," PollingReport.com, at: http://www.pollingreport.com/

Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death Penalty > this essay

Copyright © 1995 to 2009, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-08
Last updated 2009-DEC-07

Author: Bruce A Robinson
 

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