Executing Kids? The Lonesome Death

How did a small farming town in South Carolina earn a permanent place in American history?

Not because of Peggy Parish, a famous author of children's books. No. Not because of Althea Gibson, the first black woman to play tennis at Wimbledon. And the five governors of South Carolina who were born and raised in Alcolu? It's scarier than that.

On the morning of June 16, 1944, George Stinney, a 14-year-old boy from Alcolu, walked slowly, escorted by prison guards of the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C., toward his final destiny on Earth: the electric chair.

Stinney, convicted of killing two girls, clutched a Bible under his arm as he made his way toward death. The guards had a hard time strapping the 90-pound boy in the large electric chair made for adults. When firmly secured, the guards placed an oversized mask on his face. Then the executioner pulled the switch. Wit nesses said the sheer force of the electricity knock ed the mask from the boy's head.

All stared as his agonized face sizzled. Four minutes later, he became the youngest person ever legally executed in the electric chair.

No one was there that morning to claim the boy's body. The locals of Alcolu ran Stinney's family out of town prior to his execution. As an act of kindness, the state claimed the boy's body and buried it in an unknown location. Thanks to this gesture, Stinney's parents never recovered their son's body. This is how the picturesque town of Alcolu made history.

Executing juveniles in the United States is nothing new. We have been doing it since 1642. The practice is perfectly legal. With juveniles such as the accused sniper John Lee Malvo around, the death penalty for minors will probably remain legal.

Despite the legal support for executing juveniles, it's extremely difficult to justify the practice morally.

Our response as a nation to serious juvenile crime is to treat them like adult offenders. For example, my native state, North Carolina, has lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults to 13. Oklahoma has done the same. Tennessee has gone a step further by removing entirely the age limit for juveniles accused of serious crimes. When it comes to executing juveniles, Texas leads the way.

Two-thirds of U.S. juvenile offenders put to death in the past 10 years were from Texas. This “get tough” attitude underlines the fact that juvenile crime is real. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice offers information that supports this claim: EThe number of juvenile murderers tripled between 1984 and 1994.

E The nationwide arrest rate for violent crimes jumped 50% between 1988 and 1994.

E Juvenile arrests for violent crimes will double by the year 2010 if recent national trends continue, according to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Despite the legal support for executing juveniles, it's extremely difficult to justify the practice morally. Christians are in no rush to emulate what South Carolina did to Stinney in 1944. Here's why: Clinical studies indicate that juveniles don't posses the same level of maturity as adults. Juveniles need time to develop mentally and psychologically to make responsible decisions. Adults can make responsible decisions because their maturing process is over. This means the moral culpability of a juvenile who commits a criminal act is less than that of an adult. Consequently, the punishment given to a juvenile should not be the same as an adult.

Even our laws reflect this reasoning. For instance, teen-agers under the age of 18 can't vote, drink or sit on a jury because they are considered immature. Yet when a juvenile commits a serious crime this reasoning no longer applies. Why? Can anyone explain how a grave offense transforms a juvenile into what he is not physically or mentally — an adult?

Moreover, the death penalty policy for juveniles overlooks the fact that adolescents who commit horrendous crimes are sick kids. To many this assumption would seem naÔve. Let's take a look at some facts. Researchers conducted a comprehensive psychiatric examination of 14 of 37 juvenile offenders on death row. Here's what they found: ENine had major neuropsychological disorders. ESeven had psychotic disorders since early childhood. ESeven had serious psychiatric disturbances.

E 12 had been brutally abused physically, sexually or both.

All of this raises a serious moral question: Is it right to execute sick kids rather than treat them? It would be hard to find a decent person who says Yes.

I'm not saying, however, that juvenile offenders shouldn't be punished. They should. Morally speaking, we should keep in mind that the purpose of punishment is not only reparation but also correction. The death penalty, however, deprives juveniles of the possibility of rehabilitation.

The “let's kill them” approach is not the solution to juvenile crime. What we need is a culture of life as opposed to our culture of violence and death. God, traditional family values, cleaning up neighborhoods, out-reach programs for the youth and the like are our best solutions.

As a nation, we should not be eager to take what only God can give — human life.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair writes from Wakefield, Rhode Island.