In an important moment of candor, US Supreme Court Justice John
Paul Stevens last week criticized the high court's refusal to
examine during the current term the constitutionality of applying
capital punishment to juveniles.
"In the last 13 years, a national consensus has developed that
juvenile offenders should not be executed. No state has lowered the
age eligibility to either 16 or 17 since our decision [permitting
the execution of 16-year-olds] in 1989," Justice Stevens said in a
dissent joined by three other justices. "In fact, the movement is in
exactly the opposite direction."
Next Tuesday, voters in Florida will have an opportunity to
verify or invalidate Stevens's observation.
Constitutional Amendment No. 1 on the Florida ballot, if
approved, would lower Florida's capital-punishment age eligibility
from 17 to 16. It would do it by changing Florida's state
constitutional ban on "cruel or unusual punishment" to ban instead
"cruel and unusual punishment."
The statewide vote comes at a time of increased debate over the
possible utility of the juvenile death penalty following the recent
arrest of John Lee Malvo, 17, as one of two suspects in the three-
week murder spree in the Washington, D.C., area.
The juvenile death penalty in Virginia could become an important
tool in that case to help prosecutors pressure Mr. Malvo into
testifying against the other suspected sniper, John Allen Muhammad,
In addition, if it turns out that Malvo was the primary sniper,
prosecutors may seek Malvo's execution as a proportionate punishment
for his crimes, they say.
Arguments in Florida
Whether any of these developments have an impact on Florida
voters remains unclear. Proponents of the constitutional amendment
in Florida say talk about the juvenile death penalty is a smoke
screen by anti-death-penalty activists. The measure's intent, they
say, is to bring Florida's death-penalty jurisprudence into accord
with the rulings of the US Supreme Court.
"This amendment does one simple thing: It changes one word from
'or' to 'and,' " says amendment sponsor Victor Crist, a Republican
state senator from Tampa. He says the change will help simplify and
streamline death-penalty appeals in Florida, which now take an
average 14 to 16 years.
Opponents of the amendment say it is designed to undercut
Florida's Supreme Court, whose justices are generally more liberal
than the US Supreme Court on death-penalty issues.
"Amendment No. 1 is an attack on the integrity and independence
of the Florida Supreme Court and its ability to check and balance
the state Legislature on the question of the excessive-punishment
clause of the Florida state constitution," says Abraham Bonowitz of
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. …