Fewer Minors Being Sentenced to Death ; Malvo's Prison Term Marks a Broader Trend Away from Capital Punishment for Juveniles

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When a Virginia jury voted against a death sentence for Washington-area sniper John Lee Malvo this week, it followed a national trend away from sentencing juvenile offenders to death.

The annual death-sentence rate for juvenile offenses has declined rapidly in recent years and death-penalty opponents say it's only a matter of time before capital punishment for those under 18 is eliminated.

"The question is whether it will end by states passing laws banning it, the Supreme Court ruling it unconstitutional, or juries ending the practice by refusing to vote in favor of it," says Victor L. Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

Of those now on death row, 78 were juveniles when they committed their crimes, according to Professor Streib. Twenty-one states allow death sentences to be imposed on juvenile offenders who were at least 16 at the time of their crimes - a requirement of a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, which said that executing a 15-year-old was unconstitutional. The US is the only country besides Iran that formally allows the death penalty for juveniles; the practice is prohibited under several international treaties.

The 22 juvenile offenders executed since 1973 represent only 2.5 percent of the total executions during that period. Still, death- penalty opponents view this as the next place to roll back capital punishment.

Those opposing capital punishment had feared that the heinous nature of the crimes with which Malvo is connected - 10 people were killed during a three-week shooting spree - would bring on a death sentence and set back their cause. Instead, the sentence of two simultaneous life terms without parole could pave the way for the Supreme Court to outlaw the practice, experts say. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded defendants is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. …