"A Poster Child for Us"

By Blecker, Robert | Judicature, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

"A Poster Child for Us"


Blecker, Robert, Judicature


The most heinous killers, although not yet 18 when they murdered, may still deserve to die.

"A poster child for us"-that's what Seth Waxman, the lawyer urging the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw the "juvenile" death penalty, called Mark Anthony Duke. Four justices-Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter-had already publicly declared the juvenile death penalty "shameful," while Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and William Rehnquist could be counted on to support a state's right to decide on a case-by case basis. Anthony Kennedy's vote would be key. "Chilling reading," Justice Kennedy observed, pointing to Alabama's amicus brief cataloguing young killers it had condemned to die. "Look at those examples, the very first one," Waxman shot back, focusing on Mark Anthony Duke. "This is a kid who went on a killing spree." His behavior demonstrated "transient aspects of youth" rather than "a stable, enduring character." Thus, the Constitution forbade his execution, and, concluded the abolitionist lawyer replying to Justice Kennedy during oral argument, Mark Anthony Duke was "a poster child for us."

This characterization may well have had its impact: On March 1, 2005, in Roper vs. Simmom (543 U.S. 551), the United States Supreme Court, 5-4, made headlines, categorically striking down the death penalty for 16- or 17-year-olds as unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy supplied the key fifth vote and wrote the majority opinion. "Progressives" have hailed this opinion as a triumph for human dignity and decency, a step in the right direction that only enhances the administration of justice. How could any humane person-even those of us who generally support the death penalty for the most egregious criminals-disagree that kids who kill on the spur of the moment can't possibly be among those who deserve to die?

But some of us don't see it quite that way. We insist that far from refining and improving the administration of justice, this watershed decision, fundamentally flawed and flatly wrong in spots, seriously undermines a system of justice devoted to ensuring that the "worst of the worst" do get their just deserts.

Now that Mark Anthony Duke has been spared the death penalty and transferred to general population, the world at large may forget this "poster child's" "transient" behavior on March 22, 1997, and the response it warrants. But we cannot...

The Duke and Simmons cases

Generally annoyed at his father who was "always on my case about something," but especially angry when his father refused to lend him the familv truck, Duke, 16, enlisted his older friend to help kill his father. But Dedra Hunt, his father's live-in girlfriend, and her two young children, ages 6 and 7, would also be at home. No matter. According to Duke's plan, his friend Brandon would kill Dedra. Duke would take care of the rest.

Armed with a .45 he had carefully wiped clean, Mark Anthony Duke brought his friend Brandon Samra, 19, to his house. In the kitchen, Duke told his father he was tired of being bossed around and shot him to death. Meanwhile, Dedra and her children were on the couch by the fireplace, watching television. Samra shot Dedra in her face. Bleeding, Dedra fled upstairs with her little girls, Samra chasing after her, shooting but missing. Dedra locked herself in the bathroom with her six-year-old. Samra, out of bullets, couldn't pry the door open, but Duke kicked it down, and, as Dedra begged for her life, he shot her in the forehead, killing her instantly. Sixteen-year-old Duke then found six-year-old Chelisa cowering in the shower. "It will only hurt for a minute," Duke assured her as he slit the child's throat with a kitchen knife. Then Duke searched and found seven-year-old Chelsea, hiding, terrified, under her bed. While she struggled he slashed her face and hands 15 times, but he could not slit her throat. So Duke ordered Samra who first refused, but, afraid of Duke, slit the child's throat as Duke held her down. …

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