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Editorial: The young condemned / Rendell should support a death penalty ban for juveniles

Sunday, February 02, 2003

The impulse to kill is as old as the first organized societies. Examples of executions sanctioned by ancient communities can be found in sacred scriptures and oral traditions from every corner of the globe. State-sanctioned killing has a long and bloody pedigree, a testament to the seductive allure of an ethic that insists execution wielded by the state is a legitimate antidote to evil.

An equally long-standing tradition stretching from the dawn of civilization to our own day is the recognition of the moral differences and expectations of juveniles and adults. If it were not for the erosion in our understanding of these time-honored differences, it would hardly be worth mentioning.

Unfortunately, the lines between "juvenile" and "adult" have become blurred, especially in the realm of capital punishment. The case of John Lee Malvo, the 17-year-old suspect in the three-week D.C. sniper rampage last year, has ignited debate about capital punishment and whether it is ever legitimate to sentence to death a juvenile convicted of even heinous crimes.

While Malvo, who has yet to be tried and convicted, has become the obvious poster child of juvenile capital punishment, there are people closer to home and far less notorious whom we should be concerned about.

Today, four juveniles sit on Pennsylvania's death row. This isn't a particularly large number, but how high does a number have to be to sear the conscience? On Wednesday, Amnesty International USA launched its "No Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders" initiative in Pennsylvania.

Amnesty International USA is throwing its prestige behind Pennsylvania Senate Bill 15. If the bill passes both houses and is signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell, it would prevent the state from executing offenders who committed their crimes when they were younger than 18.

We wholeheartedly urge Gov. Rendell to support this important piece of legislation. We understand that our new governor has a position on capital punishment that's contrary to this newspaper's, but given the moral and philosophical stakes entailed in executing juveniles, we're confident he'll want to side against barbarism in this crucial debate.

This month, Amnesty International will conduct a public opinion poll to assess the level of public support for the execution of juveniles. It is Amnesty's belief that support has waned considerably for it. The organization is having its annual general meeting in Pittsburgh in early April to discuss the results of the poll and the legislation to ban juvenile executions in Pennsylvania.

Many Americans will be shocked to learn that Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and the United States are the only nations in the world that permit the execution of juveniles. This isn't the kind of company a liberal democratic society should desire to be included in. We urge our state representatives and our governor to get behind the movement to put a halt to this barbarism.

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