Robert Acuna, a high school student from Baytown, Tex., is the latest to enter death row for a crime committed before age 18. He was convicted of killing two elderly neighbors “execution style,” says the New York Times. If the Supreme Court prohibits the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds in a Missouri case now being considered, the lives of Acuna and 71 other juvenile offenders on death row will be spared. A central issue before the court is whether the declining number of such death sentences – there were two last year – lends weight to the argument that putting youths on death row amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Supporters of the juvenile death penalty argue that the small number proves that the system works and that juries are making discerning choices on whom to sentence to death, taking due account of the defendants’ youth and reserving the ultimate punishment for the worst of the worst. A look at the cases of some juvenile offenders now on death row raises questions about how reliable and consistent juries have been in making those decisions.