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Minors excluded from death penalty

By Ed Brock

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to exclude minors from being sentenced to death fits with a societal standard, said a Clayton County Juvenile Court judge.

In a 5 to 4 decision on Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing someone to death for a homicide they committed while they were under 18 violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Coincidentally, Judge Steve Teske learned about the decision while attending a meeting with the Georgia State Bar on revising the juvenile legal code. He was very much in agreement with the decision.

"I think we have to be careful when applying the death penalty to minors," Teske said.

The general philosophy of society is that juvenile offenders have more capacity to be reformed than older offenders, Teske said. That's why there is a separate court system that handles juvenile cases.

"If we are to stay true to that public policy ... then it needs to be consistent across the board," Teske said.

Teske said that in 1994 the state began allowing some minors between 13 and 17 years of age to be treated as adults when charged with one of the "seven deadly sins," including murder, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, armed robbery and kidnapping.

But since that time there have been efforts to change the law as authorities realized the "down side to treating kids as adults." The recidivism rate is higher for youths who are sentenced as adults than for those sentenced in juvenile court, Teske said.

And it's easier to get a conviction in juvenile court as well. Also, Teske said, the adult Department of Corrections is not equipped to handle youthful offenders.

The juvenile detention system is certified to continue to educate the juvenile offenders and raise their competency skills. At the same time, Teske said there is a small group of young offenders who are a serious threat to society and "community safety should always be first."

But he certainly agreed with the decision that the death penalty for minors could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

"Why would you want to take someone's life when the position in public policy is that they're still treatable," Teske said.

Clayton County's District Attorney Jewel Scott also agreed with the decision.

"During the teenage years people tend to make very foolish decisions," Scott said. "You tend to think they really shouldn't be executed for a crime they committed when they were under 18."

Former Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, now working as executive counsel for the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia, said he personally had no strong feelings either way on the decision.

"It's a tremendously important decision from a policy standpoint," Keller said.

But he added that the decision was "insignificant from a practical standpoint" because death penalty cases involving minors are very rare. He can only remember one such case occurring during his 30 years as Clayton County's district attorney, Keller said.

Across the nation the decision removed 72 prisoners from death row, including two in Georgia.

Exzavious Lee Gibson, now 32, and Larry Leonardre Jenkins, now 29, were both 17 when they committed the murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to death, said Russ Willard, spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office.

"Our office is currently reviewing the impact of the decision on (Gibson and Jenkins' cases)," Willard said.

While Jenkins and Gibson are no longer slated for execution, Willard said the attorney general is trying to determine if they should be resentenced or if they automatically revert to a life sentence.

As for Baker's opinion on the decision, Willard said he has not had time to review it yet.

The decision overturns a 1989 high court ruling, Roper v. Simmons, 03-633.

Nineteen states had allowed death sentences for killers who committed their crimes when they were under 18.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said many juveniles lack maturity and intellectual development to understand the ramifications of their actions.

"The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest," Kennedy said.

Kennedy went on to say that most other countries in the world do not support execution of minors and citing that belief is based "in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime."

In an angry dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia disputed that a "national consensus" exists and said the majority opinion was based on the "flimsiest of grounds." The appropriateness of capital punishment should be determined by individual states, not "the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners," he wrote.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, joined by Kennedy, formed Tuesday's decision.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in seeking to uphold the executions.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor filed a separate dissent, arguing that a blanket rule against juvenile executions was misguided. Case-by-case determinations of a young offenders' maturity is the better approach, she wrote.

The 19 states that allow executions for people under age 18 are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Texas and Virginia.

The federal government does not execute juveniles.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.