Narrow call on death penalty
CARSON CITY – Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, author of a Nevada bill to prohibit execution of juveniles, applauded on Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court ruling setting the minimum age for a death sentence at 18.
“I’m thrilled the court agreed we should look at juveniles differently,” said Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, who was the Washoe County district attorney for more than a decade, said he was offended by the decision.
“The majority of the court put current values into what the Constitution means,” he said.
Raggio argued there are a select few 16- and 17-year-olds guilty of horrible crimes, who did fully understand what they did, and should pay the ultimate penalty.
“To say all 17-year-olds is too broad,” he said.
The 5-4 decision, which overturns a 1989 high court ruling, throws out the death sentences of 72 murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles and bars states from seeking to execute others. Nineteen states, including Nevada, had allowed death sentences for killers who committed their crimes when they were under 18.
The ruling also means Lee Boyd Malvo can no longer face the death penalty for his role in the 2002 Washington sniper case or other slayings around the country.
Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the shootings, has already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for two of the murders. Prosecutors had planned to try him in other jurisdictions in hopes of obtaining a death sentence.
Raggio said Thomas Lee Bean, whom he prosecuted, knowingly and with premeditation committed a horrible murder when he was 17 and deserved the death penalty. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in the 1970s.
The ruling was greeted with enthusiasm by numerous death penalty opponents, here and abroad.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said many juveniles lack maturity and intellectual development to understand the ramifications of their actions.
“The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest,” Kennedy said.
The United States has stood almost alone in the world in officially sanctioning juvenile executions, a “stark reality” that can’t be ignored, Kennedy wrote. Juvenile offenders have been put to death in recent years in only a few other countries, including Iran, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia.
In an angry dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia disputed that a “national consensus” exists and said the majority opinion was based on the “flimsiest of grounds.” The appropriateness of capital punishment should be determined by individual states, not “the subjective views of five members of this court and like-minded foreigners,” he wrote.
The ruling continues the court’s practice of narrowing the scope of the death penalty, which it reinstated in 1976. Executions for those 15 and younger when they committed their crimes were outlawed in 1988. Three years ago, justices banned executions of the mentally retarded, citing a “national consensus” against executing a killer who may lack the intelligence to fully understand his crime.
Giunchigliani and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks, said the decision will at least end the practice of district attorneys threatening to seek death in cases involving juveniles in hopes to pressure a plea bargain by the defendant.
“Now the DAs can’t use this as a bargaining tool,” she said. Anderson said he plans to try to act on Giunchigliani’s bill this week and move it forward. He said that will put state law in compliance with the high court ruling.
Ben Graham of the Nevada District Attorney’s Association said prosecutors disagree with the decision. He said it is very rare they have sought death for a juvenile.
“Our position has been that we should have that option,” he said. “But the Supreme Court has decided.”
Graham admitted the possibility of a death sentence is a “significant” bargaining tool for prosecutors.
Existing Nevada law limits the death penalty to those 16 and older.
Legislative Counsel bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich said passing AB6 will bring Nevada law into conformance with Tuesday’s ruling.
In Nevada, only one inmate is affected by the ruling – Michael Domingues, who murdered two people including a toddler in Las Vegas when he was 16.
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