Before Douglas Christopher Thomas was old enough to vote, buy a beer or serve on a jury, the state of Virginia decided he was old enough to die.
Convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s parents when he was 17, Thomas was executed by lethal injection on Jan. 10.
“Everyone makes mistakes as a teenager, some bigger than others,” said Thomas, 26, by phone from Virginia’s Sussex I maximum security state prison in December. “What I did was wrong. But I’m not the same person I was at 17.”
No one, including Thomas, denied that he committed a horrible crime and deserves punishment. The United States, however, is by now virtually the only country in the world where someone as young as he was when he committed his crime can receive the ultimate punishment — death. This January, Virginia and Texas plan to kick off the new millennium by executing four inmates for crimes they committed while they were, by most people’s definition, just kids.
One of those executions is expected to be postponed, but even if the total is only three, “it will be the highest number of executions of juveniles not only in one month, but even in a single year” since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, says Bryan Stevenson, a prominent death-penalty defense lawyer and director of Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative.
According to Amnesty International, only five other countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders in the 1990s: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Yemen. The US has executed more juvenile criminals than all of them combined — and is the only one known to have put any to death since 1997.
Every country on earth has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the death penalty for juvenile offenders, with two exceptions: Somalia, which effectively has no government, and the US. Even China, one of the world’s most enthusiastic criminal-killers, recently banned juvenile executions.
“We’ve always been the world leader in juvenile executions,” says Victor Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University’s College of Law and author of a biannual report on the juvenile death penalty. “Now we’re the only ones.”
Killing offenders too young to be considered adults has a long history in the US. The first such execution was in Massachusetts in 1642, when a 17-year-old boy was put to death for having sex with animals. The youngest person executed in modern times was a 14 year old who was electrocuted in South Carolina in 1944. Today, the Supreme Court has set 16 as the minimum age for death penalty eligibility, but there are many who would like to see that lowered. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson suggested lowering the age limit to 14, and a Texas state legislator has introduced a bill to make it 11.
Currently, there are some 70 juvenile offenders on death row around the country. All are male. Two thirds of them are black or Hispanic, and two thirds of their victims were white.
The death penalty is generally thought of as a punishment reserved for the worst of the worst, the callous, hardened men and women with long histories of brutality and no hope of redemption. Critics of juvenile-offender executions say it simply shouldn’t apply to even violent criminals whose youth offers the potential for rehabilitation.
While each of the three young men firmly slated for death next month did commit murder, none had a significant previous history of violence, nor even a particularly impressive criminal record. Their brief lives resemble those of thousands of troubled, trouble-making teenagers — with the difference that theirs went off the rails with a single burst of unexpected violence.
Glenn Charles McGinnis, 26 and on Texas’ death row, had a history of shoplifting and auto theft, but no prison record until, at 17, he tried to rob a dry cleaner’s and wound up shooting the attendant to death. Steve Roach, now 23 and awaiting execution in Virginia, had been arrested for car theft and breaking-and-entering, but had no history of violence before he inexplicably blasted his 70-year-old neighbor with a shotgun and stole her car. Three days after the murder, Roach turned himself in to the county sheriff and made a full confession.
“I was 17. I don’t know what I was thinking,” said Roach by phone from Sussex I. “I don’t think I had a reason for what I did.”
Thomas’ case in particular points up the arbitrary nature of laws which attempt to distinguish between responsible adults and salvageable children. In 1991, Thomas and his then-girlfriend, Jessica Wiseman, were convicted of killing Jessica’s parents. The Wisemans had forbidden 14-year-old Jessica from seeing Thomas, then 17. Several people testified at Thomas’ trial that Jessica was the real mastermind behind the crime. Even the federal judge who turned down one of Thomas’ recent appeals acknowledged that “the record strongly supports the conclusion that it was Jessica Wiseman who wanted her parents killed and who instigated Thomas to carry out her wishes.”
But Jessica was a minor, and so was sent to a juvenile detention facility until she turned 21. She is now free. Thomas, just three years older, was sentenced to death. “I was just over the line,” he said, “and she was just under.”
One of the main reasons that there are separate courts and penal systems for juveniles and adults is the notion that young criminals have the potential to learn the error of their ways.
“We’ve always recognized that the essential meaning of childhood is that you will change,” says Stevenson. “To take a single act of a child, even a terrible, horrific act, and say that we’ll take their life because of it contradicts that. It’s legitimate to say they should be punished, but not to say they’ll never change.”
That argument cuts no ice with juvenile death-penalty supporters. “McGinnis was no child then, and he isn’t one now,” says Michael Jones, a spokesperson for Texas governor George W. Bush, a whole-hearted death-penalty enthusiast. “He was six feet tall and weighed 170 pounds when he went in and murdered a woman, shot her three times in the head and back for $140. This young man was judged to be a serious danger to his community, and that’s why he received the sentence he did.”
McGinnis, like many juvenile death-row residents, is the product of a savagely abusive upbringing. His crack-addicted mother used their one-bedroom apartment as base for her prostitution business. At various times in his childhood, his mother and stepfather beat him with a baseball bat, whipped him with an electric cord and poured hot grease on his stomach. His stepfather raped McGinnis when he was about nine.
The jury, however, didn’t buy his attorney’s argument that McGinnis’ traumatic upbringing should earn him a measure of mercy. Neither does Dianne Clements, director of Justice for All, a Texas crime victims’ advocacy organization. “There are lots of people with worse childhoods who don’t commit capital crimes,” she says.
Whether an appropriate punishment or not, another common argument in favor of the death penalty — that it serves as a deterrent — doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to teenagers, who notoriously think themselves invincible. Both Roach and Thomas say they didn’t even realize they might face execution for their crimes. “I thought at the most I’d get a certain number of years, and then me and Jessica would be together again,” recalls Thomas.
Roach, and McGinnis still have a chance to escape death. Ross D’Emanuele, McGinnis’ lawyer, is preparing an appeal based on international law. The US has actually signed a treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that specifically bars death sentences for persons under 18. The Senate, however, inserted a condition exempting the US from that particular clause. D’Emanuele hopes to convince the Supreme Court that the Senate had no right to do so, thereby earning his client — and possibly Roach and other condemned juveniles as well — at least a stay of execution while the issue is sorted out.
All three are also pleading for clemency from their respective state governors, stressing the lack of violence in their backgrounds apart from the murders they were convicted of. That avenue, however, hardly seems promising. Virginia’s governor, Jim Gilmore, has only commuted a death sentence to life in prison once, and then only for a severely mentally ill inmate.
Texas’ Bush has also commuted only one death sentence, for a man who confessed to a murder he did not commit. A commutation on strictly humanitarian grounds seems unlikely, especially given Bush’s presidential aspirations in a country where a large majority of the public supports the death penalty. Even President Clinton felt obliged, during his 1992 campaign, to return to Arkansas and personally sign the death warrant for a brain-damaged inmate.
Death penalty opponents, however, are hoping that the growing chorus of international outrage may help change the atmosphere in the US. Amnesty International has launched a major campaign to draw attention to juvenile executions, and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty claims to have gathered nearly 50,000 signatures for a petition demanding a moratorium. And at a press conference last October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Washington to abandon juvenile executions.
“How can we lecture to other countries about their human rights practices while this continues?” asks Streib. “The fact that international law deems it wrong, and that no other country does it, should force us to look at ourselves.”