The jury’s decision to send Lee Boyd Malvo to life in prison rather than the execution chamber for the Washington, D.C., sniper killings reflected a trend away from the death penalty for juveniles. The Christian Science Monitor reports that death penalty opponents say capital punishment for those under 18 eventually will be abolished. “The question is whether it will end by states passing laws banning it, the Supreme Court ruling it unconstitutional, or juries ending the practice by refusing to vote in favor of it,” says law Prof. Victor L. Streib of Ohio Northern University.
Of those now on death row, 78 were juveniles when they committed their crimes. Twenty-one states allow death sentences to be imposed on juvenile offenders who were at least 16 at the time of their crimes. A 1988 Supreme Court ruling said that executing a 15-year-old was unconstitutional. The U.S. is the only country besides Iran that formally allows the death penalty for juveniles; it is prohibited under several international treaties.
The 22 juvenile offenders executed since 1973 represent 2.5 percent of the total executions during that period.
Capital punishment opponents had feared that the severity of Malvo’s crimes–10 killngs in three weeks–would lead to a death sentencee. Instead, the sentence of two simultaneous life terms without parole could pave the way for the Supreme Court to outlaw the practice. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded defendants is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Four justices have announced their willingness to strike down the juvenile death penalty as well.