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Juvenile Executions: Yesterday and Today

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Juvenile Executions: Yesterday and Today

There are few topics that invoke as much passion between people as the subject of life and death. Whether it is abortion, the right to die or in this case, the use of capital punishment, the debate on each of these topics is often very heated. I have chosen to discuss evolution of the death penalty and how it is applied to minors. I will review its history and how the courts have ruled over the years. I will conclude with the decision of the United States Supreme Court March 1st 2005 and with my opinion about the contradictions I find in the arguments presented by different groups.

In 1642, U-S settlers executed the first teenager in modern

American history when the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts hanged

17-year-old Thomas Grauger for having sex with animals. On October 13, 2004,

over 360 years later the Supreme Court heard Roper v. Simmons, a case that

could mean the end of the juvenile death penalty in the United States. For more

than a century the country has fought over how to treat our violent youth. Our

national history with the juvenile death penalty confirms that we have

consistently used it against the most isolated, poorest young people ever since

the late nineteenth century. In fact, the question of life or death for a teenage

boy drew national attention more than a century ago.

For almost two years, from September 1890 until April 1892 the case of Charley Miller captured public attention. Miller was a poor orphan from New York City who killed two other boys, by shooting them in the head at close range while they slept, in a Union Pacific boxcar crossing into the new state of Wyoming. Although fifteen-year-old Miller turned himself in voluntarily, the remorse he expressed never satisfied the public. He was found guilty and sentenced to die by being hung.

During the appeals process, done by an attorney who had never before tried a capital case, they argued for clemency on the grounds that Charley Miller deserved to live because of his youth and the harsh conditions of his early life. Some “soft-hearted liberal” women, educators and clerics, wanted Miller confined to the state penitentiary for life or sent to a special boy’s reformatory back East. Others wanted the sentence carried out because they believed that a boy Miller’s age was very much a man.

On April 22, 1892, seventeen-year-old Miller was executed for the horrific crime he committed two years earlier. The execution made Charley a celebrity in newspapers in New York, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco. Just like today, there were some Americans who thought the execution was barbaric while others considered it an act of justice.

The United States Supreme Court first entered the debate on the use of the death penalty on minors in 1947. The case was not about whether it was ok to execute a minor, but did discuss if the way a seventeen year old was executed was “cruel and unusual.” In this case a 17 year old was ordered to die in the electric chair. As the switch was thrown, a malfunction caused the inmate to survive. He was horribly injured, brought back to his cell and again ordered to die the same way. His lawyer asked the Supreme Court to stop the execution. The Court ordered that there was no reason to stop the execution and that a mistake did not make the execution “cruel and unusual.”

In 1987, the Supreme Court, for the first time, discussed the issue of whether the Untied States Constitution allowed the execution of juveniles. The Court looked into the execution of minors under the age of 16 at the time of the murder. The defendant in this case beat the victim, with three other people, by shooting him twice, cutting his throat, chest, and abdomen, chained him to a concrete block and then threw the body into a river where it remained for four weeks.

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