Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Capital Punishment

In the last five years, eleven individuals are known to have been executed for crimes committed when they were under the age of eighteen.  Eight of these death sentences were carried out in the United States, the only country in the world that continues to claim the legal authority to execute juvenile offenders.  The Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, and Nigeria each carried out one such execution; each has now expressly renounced the practice, which violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [35]

The U.S. state of Texas has executed four juvenile offenders since 1995.  Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter were put to death in 1998; Glen McGinnis and Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) were executed in 2000.  All were seventeen at the time of the crimes for which they received the death penalty. [36]

The state of Virginia executed Dwayne Allen Wright in 1998 and Douglas Christopher Thomas and Stephen Roach in 2000, each seventeen years of age at the time of his crime.  The state of Oklahoma carried out the death sentence against Sean Sellers in 1999, the first person in forty years to have been executed in the United States for an offense committed at the age of sixteen. [37]

Several other juvenile offenders received last-minute stays of execution after their attorneys presented new evidence or raised constitutional issues on appeal.  On August 15, 2001, Napoleon Beazley, convicted in Texas for a murder he committed at age seventeen, came within hours of execution when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay to enable it to consider whether his first appellate attorney provided ineffective assistance.

Missouri death row inmate Antonio Richardson received a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2001.  Sixteen at the time of his crime, Richardson may be mentally retarded; his case is on hold while the Supreme Court resolves another case that questions the constitutionality of imposing the death sentence on persons with mental retardation.[38]

Similarly, the highest court of the state of Georgia postponed Alexander Williams' execution one day before it was scheduled in August 2000, with two justices noting that another case had challenged the method of execution used in the state. [39]

In all, twenty-three U.S. states allow the death penalty to be imposed on juvenile offenders, but only fifteen states actually have juvenile offenders on their death rows.  Including Beazley, Richardson, and Williams, eighty-five juvenile offenders were on death row as of July 1, 2001.  With thirty-one juvenile offenders on death row, Texas accounts for over one-third of the national total. [40]

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a fourteen-year-old child soldier was executed in January 2000 shortly after being sentenced to death by the country's Court of Military Order. Established in 1997 by a presidential decree that was itself of questionable legality, the military court does not safeguard the due process rights of those brought before it. In particular, those convicted by the court have no right to appeal; the second president of the military court told Human Rights Watch in late 1998 that those who are condemned to death may legally be executed immediately following judgment. [41]

In a positive step that followed a meeting with Human Rights Watch in May 2001, the Democratic Republic of Congo agreed to spare the lives of four child soldiers who were arrested and sentenced to death by the Court of Military Order when they were between fourteen and sixteen years of age. [42]

Elsewhere in the world, Iran executed a seventeen-year-old in October 1999; Nigeria carried out a death sentence against a seventeen-year-old in July 1997 for a crime committed at the age of fifteen.

Pakistan's July 2000 juvenile justice ordinance raised the minimum age at the time of the offense to eighteen for capital punishment to be imposed, three years after its last reported execution of an adolescent offender. China and Yemen banned the execution of juvenile offenders in 1997 and 1994, respectively.

[35] See Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “Executed Offenders,” (accessed on August 28, 2001).

[36] See NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., Death Row USA:  Summer 2001 (New York:  NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., 2001), (accessed on August 28, 2001).

[37] See Jim Yardley, “Texas Execution Is Halted by State Court of Appeals,” New York Times, August 16, 2001, p. A14.

[38] See Richardson v. Luebbers, No. 00-8810 (U.S. Mar. 6, 2001) (granting stay of execution).

[39] See Williams v. Head, 533 S.E.2d 714 (Ga. 2000) (granting stay of execution).

[40] Telephone interview with Anne James, director, Project for the Advancement of International Human Rights Law, Washington College of Law, American University, August 28, 2001.

[41] See Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 (New York:  Human Rights Watch, 2000), p. 243; Human Rights Watch, Casualties of War:  Civilians, Rule of Law, and Democratic Freedoms (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), pp. 8-10.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with Leonard She Okitundo, foreign minister, Democratic Republic of Congo, in New York, New York, March 2, 2001.

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