ACLU Says Oklahoma Officials Should Abandon Efforts to Execute Juvenile Offender

Affiliate: ACLU of Oklahoma
April 3, 2003 12:00 am

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Statement of Joann Bell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma and Rachel King, State Strategies Coordinator of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON–With the fate of Oklahoma death row inmate Scott Hain hanging in the balance, the American Civil Liberties Union today calls on Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry to consider emerging public consensus in his state and around the nation that opposes the execution of juvenile offenders and grant a 30-day stay in order to give the Pardons and Parole Board additional time to consider Hain’s clemency petition.

Scott Hain was 17 at the time that he and his co-defendant, 21-year-old Robert Wayne Lambert, killed Laura Sanders and Michael Houghton. The ACLU believes that Hain and Lambert should receive harsh punishment for their crimes, however, death is not an appropriate sentence because of Hain’s youth at the time of the crime, which was exacerbated by the abuse he received in childhood. Two life sentences is a harsh punishment and will serve the sentencing goals of retribution and incapacitation.

Given Hain’s age at the time of the crime, his execution would be contrary to American standards of justice, fairness and decency, which punish according to the degree of culpability and reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst” offenders.

Adolescence is a transitional period of life when cognitive abilities, emotions, judgment, impulse control, and identity known as “executive functions” are still developing. Recent discoveries in neuroscience reveal that the brain continues to develop into early adulthood, with the executive functions developing last. Indeed, immaturity is the reason we do not allow those under 18 to assume the basic responsibilities and privileges of adulthood, such as military service, voting, entering into contracts, serving on juries, or making medical decisions. For all these reasons, a 17-year-old cannot meet the “worst of the worst” standard.

In the last three years, the only three countries in the world besides the United States to have executed juvenile offenders are Iran, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All other countries but the United States have since renounced executing juvenile offenders.

The world’s rejection of the execution of juvenile offenders is increasingly becoming the view of those here in the United States. A May 2002 Gallup poll surveying the entire country found that 69 percent opposed executing juveniles. A 2001 University of Chicago study found that 66 percent opposed the death penalty for juveniles, and a Princeton Survey Research Associates poll found that 62 percent opposed executing juveniles.

In Governor Henry’s own state — according to an Oklahoma University poll – more than 45 percent of Oklahomans surveyed felt that children under the age of 18 should be treated differently from adults who commit the same crimes (compared to 38 percent who disagree). The same poll also found almost 63 percent of Oklahomans surveyed favored legislation banning the execution of juveniles (compared to 25 percent who opposed).

Further, legislation to ban the execution of juvenile offenders has been introduced in at least 10 states.

If Oklahoma officials proceed with the execution of Scott Hain, they will carry the dubious distinction of being the first jurisdiction in the world to execute a juvenile offender this year. We urge Governor Henry not to let that happen.

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