Should Death Penalty Apply to 16-Year-Olds? ; Florida Votes on the Issue, While Capital Punishment for Juveniles Draws Attention in the Sniper Case

Article excerpt

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, analysts say.

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. …