Kids on the Row


Glen McGinnis robbed a dry cleaner in 1990 after unloading four bullets into the clerk. A few months later, Chris Thomas crept into the bedroom of his girlfriend’s parents and murdered the couple while they slept. And in 1993, Steve Roach shot and killed his 70-year-old neighbor, then drove away in her Buick. Today, Roach and Thomas are imprisoned on Virginia’s death row, while McGinnis is awaiting execution in Texas. All three are scheduled to be put to death in January.

Across the country, there are 3625 men and women on death row, but what makes Roach, McGinnis, and Thomas unusual is that they are among the 2 percent who committed their crimes before they turned 18 years old. If all three are executed this month, it will mark the first time in decades that the United States has put to death so many juveniles in such a brief span. Of the 598 prisoners executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, only 13 committed their capital crimes before age 18.

For death penalty opponents, the looming execution dates for Roach, McGinnis, and Thomas represent an opportunity to thrust the debate over capital punishment and juvenile offenders into the national spotlight. The president of the American Bar Association has sent letters to the governors of Virginia and Texas on behalf of these condemned prisoners. And in December, Amnesty International released a report about their cases titled “Shame in the 21st Century.”

That study points out that the United States leads the world in executing juvenile offenders, a practice banned in almost every other nation. According to Amnesty International, the only other countries that executed juvenile offenders during the 1990s were Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

“Of the 19 juvenile offenders killed by these six nations since 1990, 10 were killed by the United States,” says Sam Jordan, director of the Program to Abolish the Death Penalty at Amnesty International. “We’re eager to criticize China for human rights violations, [but] the Chinese can now say to us, ‘We don’t kill children. We don’t execute juvenile offenders.’ ”

EXPERTS INSIST THE UPCOMING SPATE OF executions does not represent a trend, but instead is a coincidence. “This is not a surge in the juvenile death penalty,” says Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University’s College of Law, who has studied this topic for 25 years. “This is a little blip in executions. Out of 300 death sentences [given out annually], roughly 10 are juveniles and that’s stayed pretty constant since the 1970s.”

Until now, the busiest year for executions of juvenile offenders was 1993, when four such prisoners were put to death. With three executions likely to occur in January alone, 2000 could be a record-breaking year. Chris Thomas’s execution date is January 10, while Steve Roach is scheduled for January 13, and Glen McGinnis’s date is January 25. A fourth juvenile offender, Anzel Jones of Texas, also has a January execution date, but unlike the others, he has not yet exhausted his appeals in federal court, and so his date will almost certainly be pushed back.

The last time three juvenile offenders were executed in such a short time was more than 50 years ago, according to Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. On December 29, 1941, two 16- year-old boys and one 17-year-old boy were electrocuted in Florida for robbery and murder. Experts have been able to count 19,200 executions here since 1608. Of these, 356 are believed to have been of juvenile offenders.

Lawyers for Roach, McGinnis, and Thomas have been struggling to keep their clients alive in recent weeks. Both McGinnis’s and Thomas’s attorneys are filing appeals in state court arguing that their clients’ executions would violate international law. These lawyers point to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which outlaws the execution of juveniles. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in 1992.

This tactic of invoking international law in death penalty cases has become popular among lawyers representing juvenile offenders. Mark Blaskey, a Nevada attorney, used it last year on behalf of Michael Domingues, who murdered two people when he was 16 years old. The case traveled to the Supreme Court, which asked the Clinton administration to weigh in. The U.S. solicitor general argued that the treaty was not binding on this matter because the Senate had added an exemption to the juvenile death-penalty provision when it ratified the treaty. In November, the Supreme Court declined to hear Domingues’s appeal, dealing a setback to anti-death-penalty activists.

Besides citing international law, capital punishment opponents attempt to sway public opinion by claiming that the death penalty is racially discriminatory. Fifty-six percent of the prisoners on death row are white, while 7 percent are Latino and 35 percent are African American. (African Americans comprise 13 percent of the nation’s population, while Latinos are 12 percent.) This overrepresentation of African Americans on death row is even more pronounced among juvenile offenders. Of the 70 men currently on death row for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays, 20 percent are Latino while 43 percent are African American.

IN THE ERA OF JONESBORO AND COLUMBINE, it has almost become a ritual after teenagers commit high-profile murders for politicians to try to calm fears by publicly attacking the death penalty’s age limit. Following the 1998 high school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, one Texas legislator even demanded that the age of eligibility for capital punishment be dropped to 11. But behind all this tough-on-crime talk, there is actually little momentum to lower the death penalty eligibility age.

“I think quietly there’s a recognition that this is unseemly,” says Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. “People aren’t demanding these ages be raised, but there has been some movement to quietly do just that.” Dieter notes that when New York became the most recent state to adopt the death penalty in 1995, it stipulated that offenders had to be at least 18 at the time of their crime to qualify for capital punishment. And in recent years, Florida raised its minimum age to 17 while Montana increased its age to 18. Of the 38 states with the death penalty, 23 have a minimum age of less than 18.

This debate over sentencing teenagers to death will undoubtedly grow louder in the coming weeks. The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty has launched a “Stop Killing Kids” campaign, but capital punishment proponents insist there are no kids in this debate. Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based victims’ rights group, points out that the juvenile courts review each case before shipping the defendant into the adult system.

“The individuals are not juveniles,” she says. “They were determined to be adults. The fact that these people are called juveniles by abolitionists is nothing more than an attempt to create an environment that makes these people appear sympathetic, so [the public] will envision some innocent, sweet young child who is being executed—not the capital murderer who is being executed.”

Streib, the expert on condemned teenagers, believes the ongoing political debate over the juvenile death penalty has become a “symbolic game with a whole bunch of hidden agendas.” Only a handful of teenagers receive death sentences each year, he points out; many, many more will die violent deaths on city street corners. Still, the professor insists the issue of juvenile executions is important. “When a government decides to execute one of its child offenders, that makes a huge statement about a government’s sense of values,” he says.

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